Stephen Totilo, editor in chief of Kotaku, made an amateur’s mistake when he said “Anonymous sources are, I believe, an essential part of reporting.” This broad statement, along with Totilo’s pandering “to a readership of people who love video games,” was an easy way to justify the numerous anonymous sources cited by Kotaku. While trying to convince everyone that he’s thoughtful, Totilo forgot to tell his beloved readership the truth: anonymous sources are essential to Kotaku beating other game publications to a story.
In journalism ethics class, a textbook example of a proper anonymous source is Deep Throat, the source who helped The Washington Post break the Watergate scandal. Deep Throat is a textbook example because it demonstrates the noble mission of watchdog journalism — what the Society of Professional Journalists calls “throwing back the curtain on corruption” and being an “informant to the citizens.” Indeed, the public needs to know when the powers that be are secretly breaking their own rules.
Perhaps Totilo understands this principle, but he does not show it (he’s too busy thinking about the business model of journalism). One can admire Totilo’s intention “to reveal the truth about video games” without buying into his absurd argument for the overuse of anonymous sources. Totilo’s unethical approach to anonymous sources is apparent in his bizarre combination of examples. His first example, a Kotaku story about “bad working conditions at an indie game development studio,” certainly appeals to the idea of ousting corruption. But he goes on to justify Kotaku’s use of anonymous sources with stories about the “black-and-white-striped pre-release Xbox One,” “the then-unannounced next Aliens game,” and “the then-unannounced Titanfall.”
How does something as unimportant as a black-and-white-striped console justify the use of anonymous sources? And how does announcing games before they are officially announced contribute to the mission of watchdog journalism? Is it a corrupt sin for a game company to decide when it would like to announce a game?
Kotaku (and others) often use anonymous sources to beat competing journalists to the punch, so Totilo might not be a total liar when he says anonymous sources are “essential” to reporting. However, Totilo should’ve honestly talked about the business model of journalism rather than pass off his publication’s anonymous source usage as dignified journalism.
The most telling part of Totilo’s article is when he admits that an anonymous source got him in trouble with his article, “GameStop Is Canceling Watch Dogs Wii U Pre-Orders. Uh-Oh.” — a story that turned out to be false. We have to ask the following questions: is GameStop’s cancellation of Watch Dogs pre-orders so important that it justifies the use of anonymous sources? Does the story deal with something readers need to know immediately? Does the story throw back “the curtain on corruption”? I would say “No” to all three questions. Totilo’s use of anonymous sources for this story was irresponsible and selfish, not to mention unfair to GameStop, Nintendo, and people who pre-ordered Watch Dogs on the Wii U.
As the leader of Kotaku, Totilo promises to ensure that something like his Watch Dogs Wii U story will never happen again. But I wouldn’t trust Totilo, or “Kotaku sources,” until he revises his approach to anonymous sources.