Transparency, Civility and Respect in Ethical Debates

Photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1GRn5wn)

Photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1GRn5wn)

Journalists who joined the Society’s conversations about ethics last week noticed some interesting posts popping up on Twitter.


Many of the posts were links to articles about gaming, some were links to graphics and some posts were links to other Twitter posts.

The posts were from an online community known as GamerGate, which generally claims to be people interested in game culture concerned about ethics in journalism that covers the gaming industry. Others often point to the movement’s history and notoriety as a roving gang that engages in sexist, homophobic and threatening online attacks.

I – along with some other people in the Society’s leadership – decided to abandon the Twitter hashtag #SPJEthicsWeek, which we planned to use throughout the week, to minimize noise for people who wanted to engage in a broader conversation about journalism ethics.

I also urged people not to address the chorus of posts for the protection of the Society, its leaders and its members who would engage with each other over the Internet throughout the week. After all, the week’s theme was “minimize harm.” I did not want to take the risk of exposing anyone within the organization to harassment or threats. All other Ethics Week activities and engagements went on as planned.

This post is not meant to legitimize or endorse GamerGate, but I’d like to address the people who posted to the Twitter hashtag with engaging and lucid thoughts. I don’t want those people to think their contributions to our conversations about journalism ethics went unnoticed.

In fact,  some of those people were the most active and contributive during the Society’s two Twitter chats last week.

Abandoning the Twitter hashtag was simply the best course of action once the posts became sexist, homophobic, threatening, pornographic and – frankly – disgusting. I received some concerning messages, which were mostly deleted within a few hours. One person told me on Twitter, “man have you seen the giant mudslide of reckage[sic] we know as your (expletive) wake?”

As the chair of the Society’s ethics committee, I hate shutting out any people who want to have a discussion about journalism ethics. The point of the committee I lead is to teach people about the Society’s Code of Ethics.

Over the past year, I received several emails about the GamerGate movement. In fact, I’m quoted in a Nieman Reports story sparked by the movement about handling so-called “Twitter storms.”

Most of the emails I received dealt with getting permission to use the Society’s Code of Ethics to “score” gaming journalists on their ethics. In each case, I responded that it’s not possible to score a person’s ethics.

Some emails – and Twitter posts – called for gaming journalists to be fired. The Society is a professional organization that supports journalists and journalism. It does not have the power to fire journalists. Also, I do not comment on whether people should be fired.

Many of the emails – and Twitter posts – were also from anonymous accounts. In general, calls for transparency in journalism are not effective when they come from people who are anonymous.

This is not limited to GamerGate. I receive emails every now and then from people who – according to Google searches – do not exist. Sometimes I also receive emails from people who appear to misrepresent themselves. I’m very cautious and hesitant about responding to those emails.

People – journalists and non-journalists – who want to interact with others about the topic of journalism ethics should be transparent, courteous and civilized. One person should never harass, threaten or demean another.

Also, people in the U.S. are not forced to read, view or listen to stories from news organizations. If a person believes the information from a certain organization is inaccurate, they’re free to find other sources. People can support and encourage good and ethical journalism with subscriptions, views and listens – not harassment or threats.

The Society and its ethics committee will continue to work toward educating journalists about the Code of Ethics. We will also encourage its use. As is the tradition in U.S. journalism, I hope readers, viewers and listeners hold journalists to those standards, but through a transparent and civil dialogue.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

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