The recent dealings between Star Citizen and The Escapist have brought quite a few interesting questions forward to discuss. I'm not all that interested in arguing who is in the right and who is in the wrong, or who will "win" in the end, but discussing what has occurred and is still occurring in the light of journalism ethics is rather valuable, particularly in this case the use of anonymous sources.
Those of you who follow TechRaptor (thanks, by the way), may remember that back in May we ran into a very similar situation The Escapist now finds itself in today. Basically, we had an article detailing the development of a game called The Dead Linger. Afterwards, we had some ex-employees come forward wanting to discuss what was happening during development and what the atmosphere was like working for the studio.
While far less serious, they made some similar claims as can be found in The Escapist's article on Star Citizen with its nine sources. I compare the two because, as you may have noticed above, I was the one who decided to pull that second Dead Linger article we published, after many similar considerations on how to use anonymous sources, whether or not you should use anonymous sources, motivations for anonymity, etc. You can more or less see the conclusions I and other Editorial Staff came to regarding The Dead Linger, leading us to update our Ethics Policies to include a discussion on anonymous sources. It's worth mentioning we eventually interviewed The Dead Linger's Design Director.
As you can see, there should be a few key considerations every time someone wants to be an anonymous source for any story:
- Why does the source want to be anonymous and is there serious potential for harm if the individual publicly reveals whatever information they have?
- Why do they want to be a source at all? What is their motivation?
- Do they have information that is near to or impossible to obtain elsewhere?
- Do they have the evidence to backup their claim?
- Where and in what position were the able to obtain said information?
- Is the information they are providing something that is verifiable?
My plan is to go through the various claims from The Escapist's article, which I laid out in my previous article, and discuss what sort of issues they bring up regarding anonymous sources.
Just to be clear before moving on: This is not a discussion on whether or not these are legitimate sources, but a discussion using The Escapist's examples as a jumping off point about anonymous sources. It is also not about whether they were in the right or wrong, but to use their situation as a basis for discussion.
Rather than copying over the entire summary of allegations in The Escapist's article, we'll take it in varying chunks. The list in its entirety is in this article just under "The Escapist v. Star Citizen."
Evidence Based Claims
The first chunk to discuss is a fairly big one:
- “It was also alleged that Roberts’ wife and Cloud Imperium Games Vice President of Marketing Sandi Gardiner enforced discriminatory hiring practices.”
- Sandi allegedly informed employees not to hire people if too much time had passed since their education, putting them at around 40 years old, since they would be harder to fire and allegedly used race as a hiring factor, refusing to hire someone because she was black.
- Roberts and Sandi used company funds for private expenses, such as paying for the house they live in, vacations, travel for Sandi to go to movie auditions, and more along those lines—the sources describe a lavish lifestyle funded by the crowdfunding campaign.
- One source alleged that company funds are being used to fund the development of a crowdfunding platform.
- “Several different sources have indicated that the company has already used the majority of its funding, but not much has been created to show for it.”
- Many of the sources claim there is only about $8 million left from crowdfunded funds.
- ” ‘There’s a demo, a racing demo, a single first person shooter level, and an area where you can walk around. For $82 million,’ CS2 stated.”
- Some sources were concerned with irresponsible spending and mismanaged money, claiming large portions of the game have been stripped down to be redone with no gain. They also see hiring Hollywood actors to do voice over work on commercials and in-game voices is not worthwhile.
- Several sources claim the Austin offices are closing, even though CIG claims this to be untrue.
So that's the first big chunk, but they all have something in common: where's the evidence for these claims? Some of the above is incredibly serious, such as the discriminatory hiring practices and using company funds for private expenses.
What evidence did the sources provide other than to say it was going on? Were one or some of them involved in any of the processes, making them privy to that information? Is there documentation of missing funds? Did they have a personal conversation with Roberts or Gardiner where they revealed using company funds privately?
One route, and the one The Escapist describes, is to verify information from multiple, independent sources to determine whether or not certain claims are both worthwhile and likely the truth.
However, the allegations above are both serious and really only verifiable through evidence, which should be a necessity if the claims are to be published. The evidence itself does not necessarily need to be published, particularly if that could reveal the identity of the source, but verification as to the validity of said evidence should take place before publishing something similar to the above claims.
Further, even if the sources did provide evidence, the claims should be pursued to verify it independently. Obviously, that is not always achievable, but an attempt should be made to do so.
For example, looking at the current staffing and where they were positioned in Cloud Imperium Games would be a relatively easy thing to investigate in questioning the discriminatory hiring practices to either verify evidence or a claim.
In any case, even those where one is unable to verify independently, some effort should be made to reference whatever evidence there was in the article, beyond just the personal claim from the source(s), which I would argue is insufficient for the types of allegations above. For example, referencing a memo that mentioned the Austin offices closing, emails, official documents, etc.
Not doing so helps create this ambiguity and reason for some to think the article is just giving a platform for baseless attacks. Being clear on the evidence, explaining that evidence was seen but will not be published, and just being more open about the sourcing—the the reasonable extent that does not risk revealing their identity—should be the bare minimum when dealing with sources coming forward with allegations similar to those above.
Now it is time for the next batch:
- “The popular consensus among most of the people who reached out is that Chris Roberts is not intentionally a con man. ‘He doesn’t set out in the morning to screw anybody over. He’s just incredibly arrogant,’ CS2 stated.”
- “According to several sources, being an employee of Cloud Imperium Games meant subjecting yourself to public insults, screaming, profanity, racism, and stress so powerful that some people would become physically ill.”
- Employees always felt on edge around Sandi and Roberts, both of which allegedly routinely insulted employees, to the point that one of the sources said they would often gather four or five people to review an email before it was sent to Roberts so that there wasn’t anything that may upset him. Another mentioned Roberts was unable to control his temper and had no problem making a scene.
- Many of the sources felt guilt, like they were part of some con and wanted to get out because of the feeling.
- One source says Roberts values employees by how willing they are to say “yes.”
- “The widespread belief among everyone I spoke with is that Chris Roberts is a true visionary – but not a true leader. Chris Roberts has a vision, but people say he can neither articulate nor deliver the vision.”
The problem with these, to me, is that they are largely just opinions on personal character—personal evaluations from the source(s). What's at issue here is that opinions are pretty much impossible to verify in any sense of the word. The even bigger issue is the question about what an anonymous source should be used for exactly.
Should publications give a platform for anonymous sources to voice their opinion? I would argue no.
The purpose of an anonymous source is to bring something into the public realm that has some value to the general public concern. That it exposes, explains, or otherwise brings to light something the audience/public would both be interested in and would concern them in some fashion—whether that be their financial stake, knowledge of a company's illegal activities, or other similar matters.
Many of those guidelines mention the inherent unfairness in allowing someone protected by anonymity to attack/say something negative about someone else. The subject doesn't have the ability to respond to them directly, and as Reuters puts it, "gives the sources an opportunity to benefit at our expense."
Reporting is not about allowing someone to speak their mind, it's about getting to the truth of the matter at hand. Opinions are, by definition, not truth. If a source has too much opinion, you have to question their motive—is it to bring something of public concern to light or are they looking for somewhere a decent amount of people may read what they say? Do they have a personal animosity to whoever they are opining about?
It's all very tricky to be sure, but as a general rule, anonymous sources shouldn't be used to voice opinions. To sum up: opinions are near impossible to verify, they likely do not relate to public concern, are unfair to the subject of said opinions, and if too numerous, bring into question the motivation of that source.
Expertise and Anecdotes
Here is the final batch:
- Several matters were taken before HR, but employees received little help.
- Many of the sources feel that the development team for Star Citizen is understaffed, but management is cutting money by cutting people, not by cutting “frills.”
- ” Chris Roberts wants a certain game – practically a movie – and doesn’t want to compromise on anything but staff,” CS6 said.
- ” ‘He’s letting go people (sic) necessary to complete the game, but then wants to hire a professional linguist to create three brand new alien languages. He’s making this entire project impossible,’ CS3 added.”
- Lizzy says one of the most common things discussed by the sources was the lack of progress on Star Citizen. One source said they weren’t making a game but commercials, and another said they were always building towards the next event for a flashy demo, rather than making the game itself.
- The article ended with mention that none of the sources could agree on whether or not a game would actually truly be coming out.
While some may take these to be more opinion in some areas, these are more personal experiences and evaluations of the project itself, of which each employee should have considerable knowledge—what you may call "expertise."
They have specific knowledge and experience that won't be found in documentation anywhere and is the sort of thing that is verifiable by having multiple sources making similar comments. This is bringing to light something that only they could know.
The above comments express concern over the way the project is going and give insight into the circumstances under which Star Citizen is being developed. The public related to Star Citizen surely has a vested interest in the information as it is very likely that many would not want to support or contribute something poorly managed. That this information would be valuable in weighing whether their time and money was worth it overall.
The only thing at risk here would be when considering the source(s)'s motivation. If this is all mixed in with a bunch of opinions on specific people, then maybe it is a bit suspect. But if the source approached you to directly talk about the state of the game itself, that is a pretty clear motivation that would line up with the above comments.
Having developers—whether they are programmers, artists, etc.—discuss the state of a game and evaluate the development, particularly those that worked on said game, is valuable information for the public in gaining insight into something they may not be familiar with. Again, this goes back to that information of expertise that the general public would not necessarily know.
In the end, all of the above is solely my own interpretation of a particular part of media ethics, which as we all love to think about ethics being objective, there is a lot of subjectivity in finding what most would agree is the correct course of action.
I'd like to reiterate that I am not accusing The Escapist of any wrongdoing. All of the above was an exercise in discussion, and I do not know all of the information regarding The Escapist's evaluation of the sources they used, the evidence provided, how they were vetted, etc. Without all of that knowledge, it would be both unfair and inaccurate to evaluate their decision to publish what they did.
I hope this will make some of you think, as I know it was a good exercise for me to more firmly establish my approach and understanding of media ethics. Of course, I will freely admit again that I may certainly be wrong in my arguments/evaluations above. I do not know and likely did not consider all of the possibilities. However, I do look forward to what you all think in the comments below.
How strict should guidelines be when using anonymous sources? There seems to be a lot more in the media, everywhere, and definitely in games media, do you think this is a trend that will continue? Are journalists relying on and using anonymous sources too often?