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Why Is The Society Of Professional Journalists Debating GamerGate?

A century of ethics in journalism meets "ethics in gaming journalism."

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The Society of Professional Journalists is an august organization that since 1909 has been, according to its motto, "improving and protecting journalism." Through a national office in Indiana, 12 regional suborganizations, and a code of ethics, SPJ supports good things like the "flow of information," "diversity," and "high standards and ethical behavior in the practice of journalism."

And now the champion of ethics in the practice of journalism has deigned to consider the notorious internet movement that claims, or claimed, to be all about ethics in journalism. On Aug. 15 in Miami, nearly a year to the day since an incendiary and rambling blog post by the jilted ex of a game developer sparked months of harassment, recrimination, and hate speech largely aimed at women, the Society of Professional Journalists will host a GamerGate debate. Yes, that GamerGate, the one that pitted so-called social justice warriors against "true gamers" in an endless debate about the ownership of game culture, the one that produced dozens of rape and death threats and doxxes. That GamerGate, the one whose concerns about journalistic ethics were dismissed as at best trivial and at worst conspiratorial by dozens of mainstream media commentators.

According to Michael Koretzky, the Florida journalist who is organizing and moderating it, AirPlay — part of the SPJ Region 3 annual conference — is an opportunity to "hear what both sides say about this yearlong controversy that has made the words 'journalism ethics' a battle cry."

Except, even if you buy the widely discredited idea that the controversy has two sides, you'll only hear from one. GamerGate will be represented at AirPlay by six people, among them professionally controversial internet culture warriors like Milo Yiannopoulos, a conservative journalist and provocateur, and Christina Hoff Sommers, a contrarian resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, neither of whom demonstrated an interest in gamers prior to GamerGate. The so-called anti-GamerGate will be represented by, well, no one.

"GamerGate critics are boycotting AirPlay," Koretzky explained on the event's website.

One of those to decline was Arthur Chu — the former Jeopardy champion turned ombudsman of nerd culture — who told BuzzFeed News, "I declined because, like everyone else who was asked, I see no benefit to myself or to the world at large giving these people any more coverage than they've already gotten."

Instead, the GamerGate conspiracists and carpetbaggers will debate "journalism ethics expert Lynn Walsh and journalism trainer Ren LaForme." Walsh, SPJ's secretary-treasurer and a member of its ethics committee, is executive investigative producer at the NBC affiliate in San Diego; LaForme is a producer at Poynter. LaForme told BuzzFeed News that he is participating in the session as a journalism expert and has never reported about GamerGate; Walsh did not respond to an email from BuzzFeed News, but a Google search did not turn up any reporting done by Walsh on the topic.

Of course, if you were paying attention to the controversy last fall, you would know very well what "both sides" represent: GamerGate, as many reporters have extensively documented, acts like a goon squad that gussied up its retrograde agenda in language about journalistic malpractice. The largely anonymous partisans of the largely anonymous movement were responsible for persuading brands to cancel ad campaigns with several major outlets, including Gamasutra and Gawker; the doxxing of several prominent women in the games industry; and scores of death and rape threats against the game critic Anita Sarkeesian and others. "Anti-GamerGaters" united a group of game journalists, mainstream journalists, and internet social progressives against a movement they characterized as a thinly veiled campaign to keep game culture an immature boys' club.

But Koretzky, the SPJ Region 3 director and a member of SPJ's national board of directors, apparently wasn't paying attention last fall; he told BuzzFeed News that he only became interested in GamerGate in April, when GamerGaters hijacked an SPJ hashtag during the organization's ethics week. Wading through the mire, Koretzky found people with questions about journalistic ethics and "figured we should talk to them."

Koretzky sees AirPlay as a chance to teach journalists how to cover leaderless internet controversies in the future (he said that the coverage of GamerGate "wasn't as thorough as it should have been"), as well as a way to capitalize on excitement about journalism.

"It's hard enough to get journalists to talk about journalism ethics," Koretzky, who blogs as journoterrorist, told BuzzFeed News. "If civilians want to talk about journalism ethics, it's an opportunity."

It's unclear whether SPJ National agrees. While the SPJ regions are autonomous in planning their programming, National President Dana Neuts told BuzzFeed News that SPJ National Executive Director Joe Skeel asked Koretzky to remove the SPJ National logo from the AirPlay website.

In an email to BuzzFeed News, Neuts wrote, "The SPJ board has discussed this issue at length, and […] we have chosen not to debate the issue at the national level at this time," but added in a subsequent email, "[W]e respect Mr. Koretzky's autonomy as the director of his region, and we applaud his willingness to tackle this controversial subject. We hope it is successful."

It's unclear why Koretzky's willingness to "tackle" a controversial subject is worth applause. Would SPJ applaud, for example, the discussion of other specious "two-sided controversies" like the correlation of race and intelligence or evolutionary theory? Would SPJ applaud a conference session about the history of climate change debate that included only conservative talking heads and no climate scientists?

Ultimately, the nature of the controversy may prevent the panel from coming off at all. In a blog post Tuesday titled "Maybe I Was Wrong," Koretzky detailed an acrimonious hourlong conversation with three of his pro-GamerGate panelists, who objected to the length of the session about GamerGate history — 15 minutes — and threatened to boycott AirPlay.

"I'm beginning to regret wasting the time of so many others," Koretzky wrote, "lobbying them that GamerGate is worth a good, hard look."

An earlier version of this post misspelled the name of SPJ's National Executive Director, Joe Skeel.

Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.

Contact Joseph Bernstein at joe.bernstein@buzzfeed.com.

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