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The Polygon experiment: journalism and newsroom management

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Journalism ethics is never more murky than when removed from the stark light of dire circumstances.

The decisions a reporter covering war, disaster or unrest faces pit their moral ethics against their professional ones. Often those decisions are easily identifiable, though sometimes I think that the ethical decisions that sneak up on, or perhaps sneak by unnoticed, are the more dangerous.

I spent 15 years covering crime, disasters, and human drama for nearly half a dozen newspapers from Albany, Oregon to West Palm Beach, Florida. Over the course of that career I often was faced with making difficult judgment calls: Whether or not I should intervene to help a family escaping a burning neighborhood; point out fleeing suspects to nearby police; or tell a mother about her grade-school child's gang initiation. While each forced introspection, none of those questions snuck up on me; these were easily spotted ethical quandaries.

Now I find myself in a field that covers not the life-changing circumstances of acts of god, criminality and civic unrest, but the comparative triviality of entertainment. Potential ethical dilemmas, now much more subtle, have become much more difficult to spot.

What public good, I sometimes wonder, is served by reporting on a video game before it is officially announced? What public service is committed by making known the closing of a studio before the layoffs hit? After spending a decade-and-a-half struggling with situations with profound ethical implications, I'm finding myself getting mired in the ethics of consumerism.

When I came aboard at Polygon, I did so knowing that I was being given the opportunity to help create something out of nothing; to forge with a group of smart and talented writers, not just a website but, in my case, a way of covering video game news. I didn't want to take anything for granted. I didn't want to simply recreate my past experiences under a new publisher. So I spent some time researching the best practices of journalism: Newspapers, magazines, wire services, web sites. I read up on the latest theories of journalism at The Poynter Institute and reached out to mentors, former editors and professors.

Back in the early ‘90s I had the good fortune of learning newsroom management from perhaps one of the greatest newsroom editors of our day. Gene Roberts left the New York Times in 1972 to tackle The Philadelphia Inquirer, considered at the time one of the worst papers in the country. Over his 18 year tenure at the paper the staff was awarded 17 Pulitzer Prizes. His classes at the University of Maryland College Park were often provocative meetings filled with tough ethical questions and debate among a diverse group of students. His class on newsroom management was the most memorable during my time at College Park. So it was to Roberts that I finally went while casting about for solid thinking on how to help build a modern newsroom in an online world.

Despite having retired, Roberts was quick to respond to my request for suggestions on texts on newsroom management. The books I still owned from my days in journalism school were woefully outdated, I wrote to Roberts. Perhaps he could suggest some new ones.

"Alas, I don't know any new newsroom management book," Roberts wrote back. "I think most editors are so busy lurching from one budget crisis to the next, that everyone is focused on coping rather than managing."

What Roberts did suggest was a new book on journalism ethics written by Gene Foreman, Roberts' managing editor at the Philly, and the other half of the reason that paper won so many awards. The Ethical Journalist, Roberts said, discusses not just how to make responsible decisions in the pursuit of news, but includes some interesting management insights.

The book quickly pulled me in through its clear reminder of why ethics matter, not just in society but in journalism, and how delicate the balance can be between ethically sound and ethically questionable decisions. It also hit upon a question I've always found bothersome, both as a crime reporter and an entertainment one: Why is the public's desire to know sometimes an ethical responsibility?

Journalism, Foreman reminds his readers, "serves the public by providing reliable information that people need to make governing decisions about their community, state and nation."

As a police reporter, it was easy to see why people might want to know about a crime taking place in their community and the steps police were taking to prevent it from happening again. While covering crime can be an exercise in macabre titillation at its worst, I know I wasn't alone in wanting to deliver meaningful information through those stories about death and killing. Each such story, I firmly believed, was at the least a chance to tell a story about the person whose life was cut short by violence. I had an obligation to ensure that the last thing written about the victim of a crime wasn't just how they died, but also how they lived.

When I transitioned from night police reporter to video game writer I often struggled with what role I served as an entertainment reporter

Over the course of seven years running Kotaku I came to understand that my new job, the job of game journalist, should be to inform this emerging community; a community of game makers and game players and a broader community of those who influence games and who may be unknowingly influenced by games.

In informing any community, I came to realize, there needs to be a blend of not just what that community is craving, sometimes screaming for, but what they need or sometimes don't realize they want as well. Just because game journalism covers entertainment doesn't mean it needs to be entertainment, at least not always. The key is to tell important stories in an engaging, not breathless, way.

The excellent book The Elements of Journalism calls journalism "storytelling with a purpose." What distinguishes journalism from other forms of communication, according to the book, is the "disinterested pursuit of truth." There is "an implied covenant with the public, which tells the audience that the movie reviews are straight, that the restaurant reviews are not influenced by who buys an ad, that the coverage is not self-interested or slanted for friends."

Journalism, Foreman writes, summarizing from The Elements of Journalism, requires an obligation to the truth, a loyalty to the citizens, a discipline of verification and an independence from the people and institutions being covered.

Modern journalism, not just game journalism, has the larger challenge of confronting a vast new array of information in an environment that grants access to everyone, and creating something meaningful out of it. Cecilia Friend and Jane B. Singer's Online Journalism Ethics suggests that another role of the modern day journalist is "vetting items for their veracity and placing them within the broader context that is easily lost under the daily tidal wave of ‘new' information."

The internet doesn't just broaden the information available to journalists and to everyone, it speeds it up. But a glut of information and a scarcity of time should never mean that a journalist doesn't have time for critical thought.

Video gamers as a community want to be informed, and deserve to be thoughtfully informed. That means critical reviews, insightful features and news coverage that takes the time to investigate veracity and provide context.

Of course I'm not saying that doesn't already exist in a myriad of forms out there already, but it's important for us, as a new organization trying new things to figure out how best to accomplish those goals at Polygon.

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