I haven’t tried to hide my contempt for how a lot of the games journalism media is run, with that cleverly-linked hyperlink taking you to a list of my favorite rants – teaser: expect another attack on Forbes and the industry that listens to their drivel by the end of the week. This time, however, I didn’t even need to say anything, someone else has done it for me.
A mischievous prankster, going by the name of X-Surface, sent out an email to a bunch of outlets claiming he worked for Microsoft (he didn’t) and that he knew a bunch of secrets about the next Xbox (he didn’t), which he then proceeded to share with them. He explains:
At 1:41am GMT today I sent out an email to a bunch of gaming sites claiming to be a Microsoft employee working on the new Xbox.
I made up every single word of it along with a couple of specs copied from other rumours that have been appearing on the Internet.
This was a bit of an experiment to see just how easy it is to get a fake story taken seriously. And it is shockingly easy in the games industry.
By 9:58am GMT, it was already ‘in the news’.
Pocket-Lint.com were the first to run with the news, almost exactly one hour after saying “we have to make an effort to validate”; two hours before I got the chance to reply. It was posted with zero validation, no fact-checking, no source information. Just a simple email basically saying “I work for Microsoft – believe me?”.
I feel bad for lying, but it proves the point very well.
Tons of other outlets like Yahoo!, VG247, NowGamer, VentureBeat, Gizmondo and Tech Digest ran the story, citing it as a rumor, but making no visible effort to fact check.
The problem is that running a story about a next gen console in a year where they’re thought to release is a sure fire way to get traffic. So they do it. Who wants to fact check when you can make a fat check? Doesn’t matter if it’s not true – who is going to remember come E3? And they said rumor, so that makes it ok.
Here at PSLS, it’s easy to claim the moral high ground because we didn’t run this rumor, but that’s also obviously due to the fact that it’s about the next Xbox. But I can use other rumors as a fair comparison – last week a rumor hit the internet saying that Monster Hunter 4 was delayed so it could come to the Vita. If you only read PSLS, this’ll be new ‘news’ to you, as pretty much every site under the Sun covered it. Frankly, it made us look bad not covering it – here was this big piece of news that everyone was talking about, and it’s about the PS Vita and PSLS endeavors to be an ultimate Vita hub. Plus, we would have gained a lot of traffic. But we didn’t feel comfortable with the Japanese outlet that spread the rumor – preliminary research showed a history of questionable calls.
Capcom debunked it several days later.
We do cover rumors, it’s unavoidable, especially because many may be true due to Sony’s inability to keep a secret. But when we do, we preface the post with a look at the track record of the originator of the rumor, to try and gauge the validity of the claims. Simply put, if we don’t believe something is true, why should we pretend it could be and lie to you? Are hits really that important?
In a semi-defense of the publications that covered the fake Xbox news, Penny Arcade‘s Ben Kuchera blamed the system, more than the writers:
Most outlets will print damn near anything when it comes to the upcoming consoles because it’s guaranteed traffic. Checking facts takes too long, and if the story ends up being wrong you get more traffic by printing a retraction. There is literally no value in making sure content is correct before you run it, especially when it comes to this sort of rumor.
I don’t even say this to be mean, because it takes a giant amount of eyeballs to keep a big website in the black, and people vote for content with clicks. Rumors about upcoming systems will get WAY more votes than a story saying that this could be wrong. No one is going to get in trouble over this story, and there will be no outrage. Thinking about upcoming hardware is fun, and the standards for what gets printed tend to slide around these times.
Just be aware, when we’re bashing these outlets, that many of the people who visit are just as culpable as the writers who didn’t look into the e-mail before running it.
As a rational actor trying to keep their businesses running, they did the right thing. That’s bad news for people who want to trust their news sources, but it’s an uncomfortable truth about modern news. Fast and splashy is worth way more than accurate, and readers reinforce that attitude with their behavior.
But that’s the problem – writers shouldn’t be focusing on their business, they should always prioritize quality and fact first. They don’t, of course.
In an interview with GI.biz, the editor-in-chief of GamesBeat, Dan Hsu, said:
A lot of mobile and indie developers are always coming up to us and asking, ‘How do I get coverage?’ I’m like, ‘I’d love to cover you guys, but no one really wants to read that stuff.’
That’s not what should dictate what is covered. Quality, originality, depth, variety – these are things that should influence what is written. If I like a topic, I cover it. Only afterwards do I wonder if anyone will read it. That’s how to ensure that a publication offers something different, something unique, something to be proud of.
Perhaps I’m just a naive idealist, forcing PSLS towards inevitable bankruptcy.
Sebastian Moss, Editor-in-Chief.