There’s a quotation that gets dusted off every time a question of media or journalistic ethics bubbles up to the surface of our collective consciousness, variously attributed to George Orwell, William Randolph Hearst, and Daily Mail founder Lord Northcliffe: "News is something that someone else does not want printed; everything else is advertising."
It’s unsurprisingly a favourite quote of journalists, although at best it’s a bit reductive, and it could do with some acknowledgement that while real news is something somebody, somewhere would prefer to remain unreported, it does not follow that anything which somebody somewhere wants to suppress is necessarily news.
Sometimes information is just private, or sensitive; the criteria for determining whether it’s news, or news-worthy, has to be something better than merely the fact that someone will be upset about it being reported or revealed.
I find myself thinking about this, and thus returning to the much beloved pastime of writers everywhere – navel-gazing about the practice of writing itself – in the week when questions over the ethics of games journalists, broadcasters and other media figures reporting and disseminating information are getting one of their semi-regular airings.
The week started with a significant leak of very early in-production materials from Grand Theft Auto 6, a game which Rockstar has thus far revealed nothing official about, which were seemingly downloaded from the company’s internal message system by hackers.
Just a few days later, an anonymous "industry insider" social media account which had leaked details of various game announcement events ahead of time turned out to be a YouTuber who had simply broken NDAs he had signed for those events and put the information online through his anonymous account.
Taken together, these things have provoked a fair bit of discussion about the morals of leaking information and subsequently disseminating that leaked information or reporting on its content. There have been some well-balanced op-eds and other commentaries on the issue, but you don’t have to look too far to find some quite extreme positions being taken as well.
Independence in how news about the medium and the industry is researched and written is important and ultimately beneficial to both the industry itself, its workers, and its consumers
On one side there are those who claim incidents like the GTA 6 hack and NDA breaches as victories for transparency and openness, and thus a positive thing for consumers in particular; on the other, you have the people who genuinely believe that only official announcements from publishers should ever be fair game for reporting (which is a weirdly common position among certain types of consumer, and they’re very quick to contact writers to tell them how unethical they’re being for reporting anything from unofficial sources).
Neither of those extremes bears up under much consideration or scrutiny. Independence in how news about the medium and the industry is researched and written is important and ultimately beneficial to both the industry itself, its workers, and its consumers.
Even most publishers would agree with the value of specialist media independence, at least when they’re not having a particularly bad day. Both of this week’s specific instances, however, are pretty indefensible; the information leaked was obtained through hacking and false pretences, and there’s no public interest reason for that information to be released.
Public interest can be a reasonable defence for doing underhanded things to obtain information in some circumstances, generally when that information pertains to wrongdoing of some kind. Leaking game announcement details ahead of an embargo, however, or dumping alpha footage of an unannounced game onto the Internet, may be interesting to the public – but that’s not the same thing as being in the public interest. Early footage of GTA or details of new Assassin’s Creed games aren’t evidence of wrongdoing or information whose withholding is damaging to the public in any way.
People who aren’t taking extreme positions on this issue generally understand and accept that logic. What’s a bit troubling, though, is a false equivalency which is being used at both ends of the spectrum – comparing reporting and resharing of these leaks to the reporting of internal problems at game studios and publishers, such as extreme development crunch and abusive or discriminatory work practices.
The argument is made that if it’s okay to report those things, which obviously the companies in question would far rather keep quiet, then it should also be fine to spread leaked information about games – after all, they’re both just different kinds of information that companies would like you to keep quiet, so why respect either wish?
On the other side, I’ve seen the opposite argument made from the same false equivalence, stating that it’s never okay to reveal anything companies want to be kept private, a blanket covering everything from GTA 6 dev footage to sexual harassment allegations.
Again, these are extreme positions, but if both sides of an argument are drawing the same false equivalency, it’s worth addressing directly what the actual ethical underpinning for media reporting in an industry like this is. It actually doesn’t have anything to do with who is annoyed or pissed off at the news being reported – the moral calculus relies instead entirely on the question of public interest.
Today, there might be an information leak that a publisher really doesn’t want to be reported upon, but which it is completely right and ethical to report nonetheless. Tomorrow, more information might leak from the same publisher, which they also really don’t want reported, and in that similar-seeming situation it could be totally unethical for the media to spread it around freely.
The publisher’s annoyance isn’t the factor; it’s the nature of the information that’s important. Is it something the publisher wants to keep hidden, and is its hiding causing harm which reporting upon it might help to alleviate? Or is it just something that's private, and reporting it won’t benefit anyone and may actually cause harm by itself?
Reporting on things like studio working conditions – or other issues such as troubled development processes, layoffs, and so on – is very clearly in the public interest in a number of different ways. People – both consumers and those within the industry – have a right to know how the sausage gets made, which allows them to make their own ethical and moral choices in an informed way. Even beyond that there is a further public interest in providing accurate information, even if it’s highly unflattering, about companies and products to anyone who might end up working for that studio, buying that product, or investing in or otherwise doing business with that company.
Something like the GTA 6 leak, by contrast, provides no utility or benefit to consumers or workers, and may actively harm the staff working on the game, making their jobs harder and working conditions stricter as the company struggles to prevent future hacks or leaks
Even a simple utilitarian calculation makes the ethics of reporting that kind of information clear: a report of corporate misconduct or abusive work culture may help to slowly (sometimes frustratingly slowly) push the industry towards higher standards of professionalism and corporate behaviour, ultimately improving both the lives of people in the industry and, hopefully, the quality of the products they sell to consumers. Something like the GTA 6 leak, by contrast, provides no utility or benefit to consumers or workers, and may actively harm the staff working on the game, making their jobs harder and working conditions stricter as the company struggles to prevent future hacks or leaks.
It's not that I don’t understand consumers’ desire to see things early, or the occasional frustration with secrecy that’s not always well-warranted. NDAs in particular sometimes suck – in around three decades of working in and around games media, I’ve encountered a handful I outright refused to sign for various reasons, usually down to some massive overreach in their wording (certain publishers used to like chancing their arm with NDAs whose clauses gave them a right to demand final copy approval for articles).
Generally speaking though they’re actually pretty useful, allow a wider range of media to get better access to games and related information ahead of time – which is good for publishers since their game gets more coverage, good for the media since it allows a wider variety of outlets to thrive, and ultimately pretty good for consumers too, since they have more choice in where to get their information from and, hopefully, a better overall quality of information on which to base their purchase decisions.
As for leaked pre-alpha footage, sure, we’d all love to know more about the development progress of games we’re excited about, but teams being able to pass around rough, unpolished pieces of code, assets or footage with confidence that it’s only for internal consumption is absolutely essential to how they work.
In the end, while undoubtedly some people have had very, very rough weeks at work as a consequence of these leaks, they’re not anything too serious – they’re just information about games, and nothing in them will have caused any major commercial harm, let alone direct harm to any human being. That's almost the point, to some degree; that this sort of information is so inconsequential is precisely why there’s no public interest in revealing it, and the owners of the information have a right to keep it private as they wish.
Yet even if the leaks themselves were not of lasting consequence, the fact that they happened at all may have consequences of their own – making life harder for developers, making publishers suspicious of sharing early access to information with smaller media outlets, and ultimately making working relationships across the industry that bit more difficult.
Breaching those confidences, whether they be NDAs or network security, isn’t pro-consumer, it’s certainly not pro-developer, and it’s not justified by any public interest defence; the people at the heart of this week’s controversies did things that damage everyone involved for their own personal benefit.
Nobody should be drawing an equivalence between that and actual investigative reporting about work practices, corporate malfeasance, or other public interest issues – and even as we condemn these specific leaks, we should be wary of anyone cynically suggesting that equivalence in an attempt to have a chilling effect on much more valuable and essential reporting.