Bad linking, plagiarism, and re-writes: how game journalism is its own worst enemy
Finding stories for The Cut has been depressing. The first thing I do when I find a good link or an interesting story is try to figure out who actually did the reporting. It usually takes a few clicks to follow the links back to the source, as the vast majority of stories written on most game sites are merely re-purposed content from another source. This is an industry that can operate like a game of telephone, as content is written and re-written as it passes through different sites. The rule is always to find the source, and link that. Sometimes you find some really scary stuff in terms of ethics. Yesterday was one of those days where I came close to throwing up my hands and giving up. It began with this story from Kill Screen that talked about how ex-Epic game developer Cliff Bleszinski saw his own legacy. The quote apparently came from GameSpot. I followed the link to GameSpot. That story was actually more or a less a transcription of an interview that was conducted by G4, and GameSpot gave the originator of the content a link that consisted of exactly two characters. You had to be a steady hand to click on “G4” if you were hoping to get to the original information. All of these sites have been updated and the links and attribution improved minutes after I pointed this out on Twitter. Sometimes you have to make a fuss, but the people who actually did the reporting were given a decent link. The GameSpot story still consists of a writer listening to an interview from another source and re-writing parts of it, but re-write journalism continues to make up the majority of the stories you read on most sites. It’s nearly unfair to point out examples, because this is how we as news gathering organizations work in game reporting. We find a good story, re-write it, sometimes we add a thought or two or a snarky caption, and the work is done. Every so often there is correct attribution. If you want to know how truly bad it can get though, boy do I have fun examples.
The BioWare interview that doesn’t exist
Let’s take a look at the story about Mass Effect 4’s release date. The game is coming, apparently, sometime between 2014 and 2015. “In an interview with GamerSyndrome, a BioWare representative divulged some of the company's plans for Mass Effect 4. ‘I honestly can't tell you an exact [date] because full development on the game started a month or two ago,’ the rep stated. ‘Fans can expect a similar style of choices and action that they've come to know in Mass Effect. Casey Hudson is very much involved in the new Mass Effect game, as well as many from Edmonton. BioWare Montreal is a great studio and they did fantastic with the multiplayer for Mass Effect 3, so fans should know the series is in good hands,’” the Official Xbox Magazine reported. Good information! Okay, so they list CVG as the source for the re-write of GamerSyndrome’s content, and thus we begin the game of telephone. So let’s go to CVG’s story. “You'll hear more about the new Mass Effect game in 2013,” CVG reported, citing an unnamed Bioware rep who “apparently” told this to GamerSyndrome. The CVG and Official Xbox Magazine stories are basically identical; they’re both re-writes of GamerSyndrome’s content. There are only so many ways to grab a quote and repeat a story. As of the time of this writing, both of these stories are live. So let’s go to GamerSyndrome, who apparently did the actual reporting. “This interview has been removed,” GamerSyndrome stated. “The information provided previously by the author of this post was deemed to be obtained from an inaccurate source and NOT an official BioWare or EA interview response. We apologize for the inconvenience.” It’s nice to know that the information ended up being bullshit, but enough sites ran with the story that the information will be out there for a good long while. It takes seconds for wrong information to flourish, but somehow the correction about the story being more or less made up isn’t catching on the same way. How bad is the re-write journalism in this case? The Escapist ran the story, based on MCV UK's rewrite, which links to Gamer Syndrome, but then links to Cinema Blend's story about the whole thing being wrong, but that story only went live after Cinema Blend re-wrote the original bad information. EGM re-wrote the story, but has yet to update their coverage. We have gotten to the point where one piece of inaccurate data can control vast swaths of the gaming news outlets. Once news goes viral there is little to no fact-checking. The only source for these stories are other news outlets. It would be comical if so much bad information didn't make it out to readers. This has happened before, when MCV UK ran a story stating that an EA representative said that previous Dead Space games were “too scary.” It doesn’t matter that no one from EA came close to saying that, the headline was too good. Almost everyone in game reporting re-wrote the story, using the inaccurate quote. Almost no one read the source material to report on what was actually said. The longer I operate The Cut and follow every link back to its source to find the actual context of each story the scarier this problem becomes. These aren't exceptions to the rule; this is a weekly, in some cases daily, problem. We’re all whispering in each other’s ear, trying to understand what was being said, and then re-writing it. The game of telephone continues.
Who needs to reward original reporting anyway?
Game Informer is one of the most popular magazines not only in gaming, but in publishing. The magazine’s massive subscription base leads to many exclusives, long, in-depth articles about games, and a level of access the likes of which most sites can only dream. So let’s look at what happens when the magazine gets a lengthy exclusive about the upcoming Grand Theft Auto game. The story is reported on basically everywhere, but then you see truly jaw-dropping articles like this one from VentureBeat. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the writer involved with this story actually did some reporting, because it’s certainly written like someone, somewhere actually talked to someone involved with Grand Theft Auto. There are no links to content that didn't originate with VentureBeat anywhere in the story. But at the end…. The one outside link goes to a site called Gaming Everything that actually took an issue Game Informer magazine, scanned it, and placed it online. This is for people who are too lazy to re-write stories, I suppose? So the writer from VentureBeat couldn’t even be bothered buy a copy of the magazine he was copying; he went online, found scans, re-wrote the story, and put up an entire feature based on a scanned copy of a magazine. The scans, by the way, have been taken down. “We’ve enabled a caching system to prevent overload. As a result, it may take a few minutes for every single image to propagate,” the site stated when the images were up. “Per Game Informer’s request, the images have been removed. Sorry!” they updated again once Game Informer realized the scans were up. Ripping off content is good business, but unfortunately they can really get you for posting scans. VentureBeat’s re-write of the article is still up, however. They couldn’t be bothered to offer a single link to Game Informer, the creator of the content and quotes they were so happy to re-write and publish as their own. When Game Informer runs an exclusive cover, the most popular activity in gaming news outlets the next day is grabbing an issue or looking up scans, and re-writing the important bits of Game Informer's articles. Sometimes they provide a link back to Game Informer. Sometimes not. You find yourself in surreal circumstances once you begin to see how bad sourcing in game reporting has become. I once got into an argument with a site about a PAR story that was re-written without a single link back to our content. It turns out they were actually re-writing another article that had re-written our article and only provided a single link at the bottom. The problem was fixed once I had contacted the editors at both sites, but you can literally spend every morning unraveling the game of telephone if you let yourself.
Yet another story about the problems in game reporting
I’m a fan of many of the publications I’ve listed here, but I see examples of this lack of fact checking and re-write reporting every day. It’s not a problem with this or that outlet, it’s a problem with game reporting as an industry. We’re so hungry for content, the need to publish everything we see so all-consuming, that as long as someone else publishes it first we’re fine with repeating it, and repeating, and repeating it. If an update is made the story may be corrected, but it might not be. The 24 hour news cycle moves way too fast to look back at stories that proved to be fabrications. By the time we figure out there is a problem with a story the news is four pages back, and we’re scouring our RSS feeds looking for the next story to re-write, the next snappy headline to pass on to our readers. You can’t fight this, because it’s everywhere. In mainstream news outlets it’s a scandal when someone is caught plagiarizing work, and the writers usually lose their jobs. In gaming news when someone is caught plagiarizing work it’s Tuesday. There are no standards for citations, and news moves too fast to look into stories before they're published. What’s depressing is that we’re not just content with low standards, we’re perfectly happy with no standards. Recently a Kotaku story by Jason Schreier was re-written by two publications who saw their version of the story make it onto the front pages of two gaming sections of Reddit, a move that robbed Kotaku of literally hundreds of thousands of page views. In other instances, I’ve gotten into heated debates with writers and editors of Kotaku about incorrect attribution. We’re all victims. We’re almost all perpetrators. I don’t want to punish the people I talk about in this story; game writing in general has never been better. I also need examples of what I'm talking about, and these are the worst from my folder of foibles. There are plenty of talented people doing amazing original reporting. The problem is that we take away the incentive to do good work by merely linking to whoever we saw re-write the content, or re-writing the story completely and adding a single link to the person who collected the quotes and broke the story at the bottom. It takes ten minutes to re-write a story, and it can take anywhere from hours to days to do original work. Sadly, in many cases both instances get a similar amount of hits. If we're angry at the lack of original reporting we need only look in the mirror for the source of our problems. We cannibalize each other. You learn this the second you break a big story, and it's hard to watch new writers go through it. You can't beat them, and it's easy to join them. I understand why people become cynical. The better we get at attribution, and looking into stories before we blindly re-write them and pass them on, the better for everyone. If you know your original reporting is going to be linked up and talked about, you’ll do more of it. If you worry about your own content, you’ll link others properly so they have an incentive to do the same to you. We need to learn how to be better neighbors, and more vigilant reporters. Until then I'll continue to spend hours each day finding stories for the Cut, clicking on via links and trying to get to the source.