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Heard Any Good Rumors Lately?

Posted by CheapyD, 22 September 2008 · 982 views

On CAGcast #133, Wombat and I discussed how major gaming blogs seem to post any and all gaming rumors with little consideration given to the credibility of the source or the plausibility of the story. As an example, I talked about an Xbox 360 relaunch rumor that was posted by a random user on the forums of VGchartz.com.

Even though the source of the rumor described it as "batshit crazy", "creative bullshit", and "practically complete bullshit", not only did the story find its way onto several major gaming news blogs, it was treated as completely feasible.

During our CAGcast discussion, I complained that these gaming blogs should at least do a little bit of fact checking (or perhaps some deductive reasoning) before posting items like these and that labeling them as rumors should not give them the green light to post any screwball story that comes along. We also mention that since bloggers are paid by the story, have quotas, and can even receive page view related bonuses, it can be in their best interest to post rumors.

In the middle of my rant, Wombat came up with an impromptu idea for a contest. He asked our listeners to post a fake news item in our forums and if a major gaming site ran it as a story, that listener would win a free game. You can listen to the entire 3 minute clip here. As you can hear, there was no premeditated intent of making anyone look stupid. There wasn't even much thought put into it all as it was just a little idea that came off the top of Wombat's head. I did have some apprehensions about the contest, but I said I would provide a prize to the winner. My biggest worry was that our site would be overrun with people posting bullshit stories. It turns out my worries were a bit misplaced.

In response to our contest, I only saw two fake items posted on Cheap Ass Gamer (although now I'm told there were a few more); a forum post about Rock Band receiving Beatles DLC and completely silly user blog entry about Xbox getting a name change to Xbox Pure. Somehow, the silly one about the Xbox name change spread through the internets like crazy. Even though; the story makes very little sense and this particular user blog has no other legitimate entries, the photo of this "leaked memo" bears no resemblance to any corporate memo that I've ever seen, and the memo is devoid of any corporate letterhead, this source was deemed reliable enough to be posted on many big gaming news sites.

Eventually, the story wound up on Kotaku and was even posted by Brian Crecente, the site's Managing Editor. Almost immediately, several of Kotaku's commenters posted about Wombat's contest and Crecente updated his post with the following text (which leads me to believe you won't be seeing any more CAG sourced items on Kotaku):

UPDATE: It appears that this rumor story could be CAG throwing their credibility out the window as part of a contest. Kotaku's decision to run rumors is always based on the credibility of the site and the information contained within it. In the past CAG has proven to be a reliable site, having broken a number of stories through apt reporting. It appears that may no longer be the case.

I feel it's important to note that this story originated from one of our users' personal blogs and was not promoted in anyway by the CAG staff. We did not submit it to any sites as news and it did not appear on the CAG front page where a big story like this would wind up if I was certain of its truthfulness. I'm proud to say that in the 5+ years that I've run CAG, I've never posted a false rumor on our front page. I'm not trying trying to blow my own horn here, just letting you know where I stand on posting rumors on my own site. We're in a different business than a typical gaming blog and highlighting rumors on our front page would be confusing to our readers. Oh, and in case you were wondering, although a huge number of sites posted the story, none of them bothered to contact myself or the story's author to check on it's validity.

After this all went down, I started explaining the whole situation to my wife. One of the great things about my wife is not only is she very intelligent, but she does not hesitate to tell me when she thinks I'm wrong. As I start complaining about gaming news sites posting any and all rumors, she starts shaking her head in disagreement, and after 5 minutes convinces me that I've made an error.

She tells me I have no right to complain about these sites posting unfounded rumors. Clearly none of them are pretending to be the New York Times of gaming news. There are plenty of (gaming and non-gaming) sites out there that post rumor after rumor, and people eat it up! Hell, there are publications that make their living posting nothing but rumors, many of them with little basis in reality. Ultimately it is up to the publication to decide its position on posting rumors. If Kotaku and other blogs want to run fast and free with rumor postings, it's really none of my business. I run my website according to my rules, and it's up to their management to make their own. When it comes down to it, there is nothing inherently wrong with sites like Kotaku posting unsubstantiated rumors if that is inline with their policy. Of course if a website decides to run articles likes these, it becomes a bit hypocritical for them to question other sites' credibility. After the Xbox Pure story made the rounds, it's quite obvious that most sites have little or no rumor vetting process, yet many seem to pretend that one is in place.

I like Brian Crecente. I've socialized with him on several occasions and he has been nothing but polite and friendly during our encounters. I even took both Kotaku Brians (Crecente & Ashcraft) to a Sumo match during last year's Tokyo Game Show. However, I feel his comment "CAG [was] throwing their credibility out the window" is unfair, and judging by the whirlwind of comments on Kotaku, CAG, and several other gaming forums, many others do too. I can understand that Brian would feel a little embarrassed and betrayed, but really, what percentage of rumors like this get posted and turn out to be actually true? I bet it's insanely low. Do bloggers act similarly when they post other rumors that turn out to be false? Does it matter that those rumors were not inspired by a contest, but by an individuals' desire to spread misinformation? By throwing this one-time contest, we encouraged a few more people to post false stories in the community areas of CAG. Considering the huge numbers of false rumors that get posted by bloggers every week, I don't really see why this is such a big deal. The end result is that we publicly illustrated how anyone with no reputation whatsoever can easily spread a bullshit story through the blogosphere and some bloggers that fell victim to it are embarrassed.

I'm not telling anybody what they should do, but if I ran a major gaming news blog like Kotaku, i would make a few small changes. It would make sense to run a wide variety of rumors because they are fun, generate page views, and I wouldn't want my readers to potentially miss out on a big story. I probably won't have time to fact-check every (or any) rumor that comes along, but feel my readers deserve something more than just adding "Rumor" to a headline. I like the idea of establishing some sort of bullshit scale and adding a rating to every rumor post. This way, my readers still get access to all sorts of interesting rumors and the discussions that follow, and will receive the added benefit of a clear indication of its likely accuracy from the knowledgeable video game writer who posted it. The additional insight would be valuable and would add an extra level of fun (and all-important ass covering) to these items. On top of this, I would write up a few sentences about my site's policy on rumors and link to it in every rumor post. It might be worthwhile to add a rumor filter option so if my readers wanted to avoid these posts altogether, they could do so easily.

Even though we weren't out to teach anybody a lesson, I hope bloggers and their readers can take away something positive out of all this. I've certainly changed my mind about rumors and their place on gaming blogs. My expectations of blogs have definitely been altered, and that's not meant to be a snub to the blogosphere. I think we all read blogs to not just be well-informed, but also be entertained, and rumors are an important part of the equation.

I am happy to see I am not the only one who thinks this whole prank / contest was childish and unprofessional. I agree with Kiddvid 100% Cheapy and Wombat need to take their influence on the gaming culture more seriously.
I like Wombat as a person, but I will have to say if I am his boss at UGO he will be fired. He is a game journalist and what he did was not professional at all. Wombat is welcome to write an editorial or blog post regarding the bad practice of sites posting BS sensational stories, but to pull a prank like he did show that he doesn't know how to handle his new found influence on his fellow readers / listeners. I wasn't too happy regarding his takes on asking for games from publishers either.
On the latest (September 23rd) episode of the Bombcast, Jeff and Ryan totally got it right in understanding the situation:

Discussion starts near the end at the 104:00 mark.
I love this story... all of the sites who received any criticism for posting a rumor story on a random forum post as fact deserve exactly what they got. It's one thing for one site to blog it, but when it spreads over several famous blogs to quote it from one SINGLE source which clearly states it could only be a rumor, then they all deserve what they get.

All of those blog cites are now under suspicion in terms of reliability, but just as they should be! The pathetic "passing the blame" only makes me question them all even more. Instead of them apologizing and making it appear as a one time mistake and assuring me that they will do more research in the future, and showing that they care more about the readers than their own image, they haven't shown that they plan to put any more work into research in the future but rather that they will be more experienced in covering up fake stories and passing the blame. Way to fail.


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