Journalism: Are You Doing It At All?

If you've visited io9 any time in the last week, you'll have noticed banners, sidebar ads, and the revamped title bar all bearing the by-now familiar images of an alien spaceship and an alien-shaped gun range target, which are only part of the gargantuan promotional effort for Neill Blomkamp's upcoming film District 9. The advertising blitz was directly tied to io9's coverage of Comic Con, with most of its con-related articles accompanied by an individual banner reading 'San Diego Comic Con - Presented by District 9' (you can still see the individual banners if you go back a page or two on io9's history, and though the main site's title bar has returned to normal, it's still in its District 9 version on the individual pages of several of the Comic Con-related articles).

If you've visited io9 any time in the last week, you may also have noticed that on July 24th, site editor Annalee Newitz gave District 9, which she saw in an advance press screening at Comic Con, a rave review, and that on Tuesday, news editor Charlie Jane Anders, in an article ranking the con's biggest buzz generators, gave District 9 the top spot.

Commenter oliverkirby, who suggested, albeit not very diplomatically, that District 9 triumphed over James Cameron's Avatar in the latter article because of the advertising buyout, was told by Anders that "that's the most ban-worthy comment we've had in ages." I commented yesterday, saying that the film's sponsorship of io9's Comic Con coverage represented a clear conflict of interests. The comment appeared some time during the night, was replied to by commenter zenpoet, and has since been deleted (comment permalinks don't appear to be working. Click on 'show all comments' at the bottom of the page to see oliverkirby's comment and the reply to mine). Both user accounts are now banned from commenting on the site.

On the one hand, I feel more than a little silly getting worked up about this. To rant that I've lost all respect for io9's journalistic integrity is to suggest that I had any in the first place, which is very much not true. There's a wide spectrum in culture journalism between delivering news and delivering hype, and io9 has always tended towards the latter end. And to be honest, even the most conscientious, independent blog or news site will inevitably bump up against the problem of distinguishing journalism from advertising. Is it alright to accept an ARC from a publisher or editor? Should you go to an advance press screening of a movie you've been eager to see? Should you accept memorabilia and tie-in merchandise from PR agents? For that matter, should you go to Comic Con, which is ground zero for this kind of targeted, swag-laden advertising?

I have different answers to each of these questions, and am by no means of a Jonathan McCalmont-esque purist persuasion. I recognize that it's impossible to interact with the product of an entertainment industry--particularly one like Hollywood, with money to burn--without becoming complicit in the marketing of that product on some level, and that there are many shades of gray when it comes to deciding just how deep that complicity should run. What io9 did, however, does not fall in a gray area. io9's Comic Con coverage was brought to us by District 9, and as part of that coverage io9 informed us that District 9 was "One of the Best Movies of 2009," and that it had won the convention's "buzz wars." There is no way to make this kosher, and if there were, deleting and banning commenters who questioned this choice is clearly not it.

Bear in mind, also, that this isn't some newbie blogger excitedly running a promotional book giveaway from their den because they're just so stoked that a publisher actually talked to little old them. io9 is run by Gawker Media, a half-decade old company running some of the most highly visited blogs on the net. There is no way its editors aren't savvy enough to understand what they were doing. Advertising on the site isn't the equivalent of some blogger activating Google Ads in the hopes of getting a couple of bucks to defray the costs of blogging part-time. Like traditional newspapers, io9 is in the business of selling eyeballs to advertisers. The District 9 sponsorship-rave combo makes it look as though the site has made the transition to selling customers, and only serves to blur the difference--already not that easy to discern--between io9 the science fiction news site and io9 the promotional brochure.

This is not, by the way, to be taken as a comment on the film itself. I've heard good things about District 9, including from sources other than io9, and the trailer is very promising. I'm looking forward to seeing it--it is incredibly irksome to me that I'm leaving Montreal the day before its release--though I have to say that io9's behavior also reflects badly on the film's PR team, who, one would think, were already paid up in the snafu department. I'm even prepared to believe that both the review and the buzz ranking article were written in good faith, but whether or not they were, it simply doesn't matter. You can't review your own sponsor and expect to be taken seriously as a news source, though of course it remains an open question whether that is a state that io9 has ever aspired to.


Jonathan M said…
Amazing. Absolutely Amazing.

One expects so little from io9 : press releases written up as editorial, pictures of actresses in underwear and swimsuits, trolling of the blogosphere but being outright shills is a new low even for them.
ubik said…
I stopped reading io9 a while ago, thanks for reminding me why.
Martin said…
I love that you can see the number of clicks each article generates on io9. When you look at the ones with the highest numbers it's quite clear why journalism isn't their number 1 priority. ;-)

Question is: Do they do it because that way they generate more clicks or do they generate more clicks in the hurray-new-trailer-is-sooooo-coooool-field because their journalistic ability is so non-existent, that no one would read anything that isn't buzz generating. And I think it's no coincidence that Anders is involved in this one, even by io9-standards she always stands out in brainless buzz generating.
Martin said…
I'm not surprised that io9 don't give a toss about ethics or conflicts of interest but I'm amazed that they would actually ban accounts for pointing this out. I thought Anders was meant to be someone who was really interested in the genre rather than a hack but obviously not.
James said…
Maybe the bloggers have no control over who is banned? Not sure who is in charge.

Although I don't read io9 very often it's easy to criticise it. However, if I was offered the opportunity to make my living from blogging about SF would I take it even if I had to write 80% bollocks and 20% interesting? Maybe. Probably.

But then that's what I see blogging as being anyway and what I've always done. I'm not a journalist, I just have a blog, and of course I'm going to write about the stuff that the majority of SF fans want to hear about. I even forced myself to watch the first two series of Torchwood.

However, would I say something is good when I think it's not. No.

Isn't it like the actor making a blockbuster movie to pay for an indie film?

It's easy to have morals when it's not your mortgage riding on the number of views.
Liz B said…
I'm with Martin (uh, the second Martin) on this one - it's not surprising that io9 don't care about conflicts of interest, but if pointing out the conflict is "the most ban-worthy comment we've had in ages" they must have the nicest comment threads on the internet.

It's easy to have morals when it's not your mortgage riding on the number of views.

Of course, and see all the arguments previously about what disclaimers you need when reviewing books you were involved with in some way. io9 should feel free to get sponsorship and stick banners all over their site, but they shouldn't expect me to take their reviews seriously when they do it.
John Scalzi said…
"You can't review your own sponsor and expect to be taken seriously as a news source"

Sure you can, so long as you have a robust wall between advertising and editorial staffs, which traditionally newspapers and magazines have had, and you disclose the relationship. It's also possible for a magazine/newspaper in a mega-corporation to review the product of other portions of the corporation (for example, Entertainment Weekly or Time Magazine reviewing Warner Bros. movies), again as long as there's an understood editorial independence.

The question is not whether one can dispassionately review one's own sponsor; one can, and it's been done lots. The question is whether that's what i09 is doing, or if they are allowing themselves to be influenced by their sponsor in their editorial task.
Martin #1:

I do actually think that there's a place for news aggregators and signal boosters online, and as a source for things like the latest Doctor Who trailer I find io9 very useful. I absolutely expected them to have a presence at Comic Con, and I think that reporting on a much-talked about film like District 9 falls entirely within their purview. I don't have a problem with io9's business model in principle, but as in traditional journalism this model requires a content provider to be scrupulous in their dealings with advertisers and avoid even the appearance of being a shill. This they've now spectacularly failed at.


It was Anders who told oliverkirby that his comment was 'ban-worthy,' and she's also the one who 'promotes' comments on site articles (the default option is that visitors only see comments that have been promoted by, I assume, some moderator or super-user) including the one in question. Obviously, I don't know that it was her decision to ban oliverkirby and myself, but the conclusion isn't a great leap, nor does the possibility that she isn't responsible for it absolve the site in general of responsibility for shutting down criticism (nor, indeed, for the original act which instigated that criticism).

The argument that we should cut io9 a break because they're just trying to generate page views or pay the mortgage doesn't hold water. That's the rationale that gave us tabloids and paparazzi. You're also ignoring the difference between reporting on what's popular, which is what io9 has been doing from day one, and giving raves to your sponsor. It's a much shorter distance from the latter to selling your good opinion to anyone who can afford it.
Jeff said…
I don't think io9 is due anything other than our derision. They are the TMZ of the genre media, but this does seem like a new low.

The media masters of District 9 are also proving to be consistently scorn-worthy... Don't forget their boys-only promo for Comic Con.
Unknown said…
Scalzi sez: "The question is whether that's what i09 is doing, or if they are allowing themselves to be influenced by their sponsor in their editorial task."

Well. I follow a shitload of comics blogs, so I've been drowning in SDCC posts for days now.

How many of these made any mention of District 9, let alone cited it as one of the most buzz-worthy things at the con?

Fuck all.

So, yeah. I think io9 are full of shit here.

And, honestly, even if they genuinely thought that District 9 was exceedingly buzz-worthy, they should've just taken a step back and thought "Actually, no. We can't say that, not with all our advertisting of District 9 on our site."

It's very much a case where not only does one have to not do anything unethical, one has to be *seen* to not do anything unethical. And io9 have failed at that.
Joe S said…
io9 sure hates "G.I. Joe" too, which just happens to open a week before D9.
Martin said…
It's easy to have morals when it's not your mortgage riding on the number of views.

Yeah but it's easy to have morals when it is your mortgage riding on the number of views as well.

I think there's a difference between an advertiser and a sponsor. I'm sure someone will correct me, but I can't think of any examples in which an entertainment news source accepted sponsorship from a product they were supposed to be covering. I certainly can't recall an instance in which a review of that product was published under its own sponsorship. What does that do to the robust wall between advertising and editorial considerations?

As Holden says, the issue isn't whether the reviews in question were written in good faith, but whether there's any doubt on that issue. I think there's a boatload.


Yes, though obviously io9 are the main culprits here, I'm surprised that the District 9 PR people didn't see anything wrong with this deal either.


That's an interesting comment about District 9's coverage on other sites. Honestly, I haven't sought out coverage of SDCC, so my impression of the film's buzz levels is mostly driven by io9's coverage.


To be fair, the trailer for G.I. Joe looks appalling.
Jonathan M said…
Abigail - There is a quite notable precedent for this kind of thing.

Eidos sponsored Gamespot on behalf of their game Kane & Lynch. They even had Kane & Lynch side-bars. The full proverbial 9 yards. One of their more respected reviewers Jeff Gerstmann reviewed the game saying that it was only "fair" which isn't too good. Next thing we know, Gerstmann has been fired and the internet goes nuts.

What actually happened is cloaked behind NDAs but the implication was pretty clear : don't dump on the sponsor.

I concur with what some others are saying too... I read a load of film websites and hardly anyone is talking about District 9. The Buzz from San Diego is Avatar and the new Batman.

Having said that, I've seen the trailer for GI Joe and io9 have EVERY reason to think it looks terrible :-)
Unknown said…
What a sanctimonious piece of crap.

Io9 is a self declared gossip blog, same as all of Gawker media. It gets the eyeballs it is getting by being the most eclectic SF-Blog on the web - no other blog delivers the same range from science to books to movies to TV or achieves even close to the same amount of content. Add to this a rather large community, and you have the attraction in a nutshell.

"Journalistic integrity", a term made hilarious by any amount of news delivered in the old US of A, is not the drawing point.
Jonathan M said…
Eclectic my arse... it's post after post about Hollywood schlockbusters and terrible TV shows with the odd book-related bone thrown in for good measure.

io9 panders to the mainstream, geek-oriented monoculture and has little interest in what goes on outside it. It gets eyeballs because it panders to that market and throws in pictures of hot chicks in bathing suits from time to time.

The idea that it's a gossip-related blog is neither here nor there. If they want to do hype they should do hype and not do reviews and editorial pieces.

If they're expressing an opinion and said opinion is compromised by sponsorship (as it seems to be in this case) then they're ethically compromised and their opinions should be of no interest to anyone.

And of COURSE those District 9 pieces are compromised. It's a film from an unknown director, with no stars and no recognisable IP. The only thing it has going for it is that Peter Jackson is a producer. There's no way that it's the most talked about film at SDCC.
It's a film from an unknown director, with no stars and no recognisable IP.

Not that I disagree with your ultimate point, but I feel compelled to point out that this is exactly the sort of film I would want io9 or any other allegedly eclectic SF news site to pay attention to. It's their choice to do so while accepting money from its producers, and as you say, the fact that they may be distorting their SDCC reportage in its favor, that's fishy.
Raz said…
Ethical issues aside, I'd say giving a bigger coverage to "District 9" over "Avatar" makes perfect sense - and, for that matter, better jounalism - given the fact that in the case of "District 9" we have a complete movie, whereas in the case of "Avatar" all we have is hype - hype that has little to do with what's actually *in the film* and more to do with the fact that it's the next big thing in film technology, etc. - stuff that's been told and retold for several years now. And with only five months till the permiere, what we know about this movie is still mostly hot-air baloons released by the PR department.
So, when reporting about "District 9", io9 may be hyping a film, but at least they do so to an existing film, rather than reporting about a film that currently has *nothing* other than hype.
Hi Abigail, thanks for writing about io9. Sorry I only just saw this, after someone sent us the link. To answer your points in order: We banned Oliver because he was being abusive. We have a clear policy that says that if you attack us or accuse us of not believing what we write on the site, then we will ban you. Your comment never actually appeared on the site -- when I read your comment, I thought it was Oliver coming back under another name. Someone may well have responded to your comment -- sometimes starred commenters can see unapproved comments and respond to them -- but you were never approved.

As for District 9, we saw this movie at SDCC and it blew us away. And we really did think it came into SDCC with the least buzz, and came out with the biggest increase in buzz. It would be hypocritical of us, in the extreme, not to say what we think about this movie because it's advertising on our site. We've never had any pressure to say nice things about our advertisers, and if we had, we'd ignore it. We assumed anyone who visits io9 regularly would know that we don't give special treatment to our advertisers. We hadn't been hyping District 9 much until we saw it and realized how great it was.

Thanks again for commenting about io9, and for helping keep us honest. We love your writing over at StrangeHorizons.

All best,
Charlie Jane Anders
ouranosaurus said…
I think Charlie Jane Anders is referring to an email I sent when I saw your post; I was working on the theory that the best way to find out what's going on is to ask directly.

I'm not terribly satisfied with their response or their policy, as I've posted on my own blog
Josh Jasper said…
So comments that, "accuse us of not believing what we write on the site" get the user banned, but if it appears in a relativity noteworthy blog somewhere, io9 will come and thank that person for keeping them honest?

That makes NO SENSE.
Big Flub said…
I read io9 (Amongst other things) simply because I haven't found anything else yet to replace it. It's mostly trash and frequently annoys me. It seems to bounce between press releases of new shows and the sort of fanboy complaining you wouldn't expect from what is essentially a business with some godawful rubbish and top ten lists designed to make scrolling through them on Google reader a chore.

Please. To save my sanity and get me the quality info I need please turn this thread into a recommendation for good quality sci-fi/fantasy blogs. Tor doesn't seem too bad but they must exist somewhere.
Hi Charlie,

Thanks for your comment, but I'm afraid I'm not satisfied by your reasoning. What you seem to be saying is that your readers ought to know that you're honest, even as you do something that calls that honestly into question. As I've said, I don't think it matters whether a review posted under these conditions is an honest one - which I'm perfectly willing to accept yours was - because the doubt raised by those conditions is too great.

At the very least, I would have expected some acknowledgement that here was a potentially sticky situation, not banning commenters who pointed this fact out.
Didi said…
I must say, that if this is what they call abuse, they must live very sheltered lives. I'm a tech editor at a large Israeli website and we get "you got paid for this" comments on most positive reviews and "you got paid by the competition" comments on most negative reviews.

Unless the language is particularly vile, these comments are approved. While grossly mistaken, these commenters are entitled to their opinion and entitled to share it.
Again, not that I disagree with the underlying principle, but I would hate to think that Israeli news site commenters were being used as the standard for appropriate online behavior.
Didi said…
Our comments are not nearly as bad as the stuff you see on the News section. Also, the stuff that gets approved is much saner than the comments only editors at Walla "get" to see.
Simon said…
Good article but I was wondering what you thought of the io9 stance on the Bloodcopy debacle.

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