Last Thursday, for people in the lively world of the blogosphere for the video game industry, will be likely remembered most for the heated war of words between Sony and Web site Kotaku.
In short--Kotaku is an online site dedicated to covering video games, edited by Brian D. Crecente. According to their own about page, "Kotaku provides hourly links and commentary for obsessive gamers--and explores the cultural ramifications interesting enough to attract a wider audience."
Last Thursday, the company posted what they call a "rumor story" that Sony planned to unveil what is called a PlayStation Home. Clearly labeling it a "rumor," the story includes information on a "tip" that was "juicy and quite believable" but would not be confirmed by Sony. The understanding from the source is that a central room would be created for a console avatar and, as accomplishments are reached on various PlayStation games, new items would adorn that central room. The full story is available here.
Later on Thursday, Crecente posted a followup story called "Sony Blackballs Kotaku." They claim that Sony asked them not to publish the rumor story "first nicely, then not so much." He claims that they were threatened that they would be blackballed, that they would be uninvited to meetings including ones on "blogger relations," and, according to Crecente, that they "would no longer deal with us."
Crecente writes that they "went forward with the story, choosing not to point out the threats," but soon received a letter from Senior Director of Corporate Communications at Sony, Dave Karraker, who points out all the work they had gone through to give Kotaku access in the past. He writes, "I am very disappointed that after trying to work with you as closely as possible and provide you and your team with access and information, you chose to report on this rumor...I can't defend outlets that can't work cooperatively with us." Instead, Karraker announced that all interviews with Kotaku would be cancelled, and they were "dis-invited" to the planned meeting event for tomorrow.
Crecente decided to publish the e-mail verbatim and his reply as well, saying, "I think this only highlights the differences that PR people and journalists have. My interest is not in making sure that Sony has positive news or that the timing of their news is correct, my job only is to inform the readers of news as quickly and accurately as I can."
Certainly, Kotaku is grandstanding in their response here, just as Sony is as shortsighted in its letter to Kotaku. Knowing the nature of citizen journalism and the blogosphere, should Dave be that surprised that his e-mail was published verbatim?
Not surprisingly, it was later that day that Sony decided, after a phone conversation between Dave and Brian, to reinstate access to the company for Kotaku. Brian writes, "He told me his take on the story and his frustrations and I told him mine, in the end we agreed to disagree on some level, but also decided that our readers and gamers in general would be best served if Sony and Kotaku could still play nicely together."
I first found out about the debacle on David Edery's Game Tycoon. David, who used to be located here at MIT and remains affiliated with C3, included a brief note about the whole debacle, fully acknowledging that he has a dog in this fight, since he works for Microsoft, a major Sony competitor in the gaming space.
This led to a fascinating debate in its own right between Edery and Morgan Ramsay, the chief brand architect for Heretic. Since Friday morning, Morgan and David have had a fascinating debate about the implications of a Microsoft employee commenting on the Sony situation, whether the folks at Kotaku should be granted consideration as journalists or not, the meaning of malpractice, and a whole slew of other complicated and intriguing questions.
In the comments section, Ramsay writes, "Kotaku was wrong. Kotaku made the foolish move. Any respectable journalist who values relationships over content would have not published information that was requested by a business to not be published. Whoever wrote about the 'differences between what PR people do for a living and what journalists do' is obviously trying to escape with a weak excuse." Particularly, Ramsay is questioning how the printing of rumors as news can be considered journalism, even if clearly labeled rumor.
This debate is not only about whether citizen journalism is valid but also the different codes of conduct for those blogging news and journalists as major news organizations. Certainly, I think Kotaku doesn't carry the branded reputation of The Wall Street Journal, but it does not mean they are not journalists as well. Kotaku has developed a substantial following as a news source, and Brian could be considered a journalist just the same as anyone else, irrespective of where his news is published.
On the other hand, this larger debate about whether rumors or speculation should be published as industry news or not is key here. Much Internet reporting on niche industries is rumor speculation, and much of it contains anonymous sources. This debate involves weighty ethical issues.
As a trained professional journalist myself, I don't care much about the lines between citizen and professional journalist. I think there's room for both, and I think quality journalism will develop a brand based on reputation. In the case of rumor reporting, I tend to decide its validity based on the eventual proof of whether these unnamed sources are correct or not. If the sources are valid, and the news is true, I don't see a comprising if journalistic integrity for reporting confirmed information from reliable sources that nevertheless cannot be officially "confirmed." It doesn't take long as a reader to separate the wheat from the chaff in telling which sites publishes unsubstantiated rumors that are "stabs in the dark" and which sites present unconfirmed news that is more-or-less accurate.
As far as compromising a source, that is up to the individual journalist. In Kotaku's case, it seems worth the risk, because public pressure seems to have necessitated Sony's playing nice. But I have encountered plenty of personal dilemmas in the past where running a quote or story would interfere with the greater good in damaging a needed relationship to get more substantial news in the future. It's a balancing act as a journalist, and I think Kotaku has proven that they deserve that moniker.
On the other hand, as Morgan points out, with great power comes great responsibility, so Kotaku subsequently deserves to be held up to that greater degree of scrutiny that Morgan brings to Brian's actions.
Here is Morgan's official response. A reader, Aaron, questions the divide Morgan makes between bloggers and journalists in the first place. "The same ethics apply equally to all professions and no-professional roles. Blogging may be more casual than traditional journalism, but the degree of formality should not affect moral expectations."
The journalistic questions here are substantial. Are bloggers journalists? If so, are they held to the same standard? My take would be that they should be but that rumor stories are allowable if the source is valid and sure, even while remaining anonymous.