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Director's Cut: A Question of Ethics

Posted by Patrick Sauriol on Sunday, June 4, 2000

Do ethics and morals apply when it comes to the realm of Internet movie websites? That's the question that's been asked this past weekend by webmasters around the world.

Harry Knowles, the webmaster at Ain't it Cool News, ran a story on his website that impacts both this website and AICN as well as the rest of our community. It might affect what future direction these sites take; in fact, it may impact how online journalism is performed across every website as a whole. With such a new medium as the Internet, should there be rules that site operators follow when it comes to posting stories on their site? And if so, shouldn't the bottom line of such websites be that they deliver an accurate, unbiased and fair means of sharing news information to their audience, if they indeed pretend to be considered an online news source?

 To understand what's behind this question, it's necessary to understand what set this debate off. In fact, it's been a debate that I as Director of Coming Attractions have been having with Harry Knowles for more than four years. The straw that broke my resolve occurred last week...

 Last Thursday Coming Attractions broke an unconfirmed story that actor Jimmy Smits had been secretly cast in Star Wars Episode II. We ran this story after holding back on it for more than a week to acquire additional information. Shortly after posting the story on CA's SW2 page, I wrote a press release to the online community notifying them that we were running this story. The body of this message read:

 

      Hey gang,

 

      I rarely do this, but I feel the importance of this piece of gossip is important enough to pass on to you all. CA's running the story that Jimmy Smits (yes, he of NYPD Blue fame, but I prefer LA Law myself) has been secretly cast in a role that'll have him starring in STAR WARS 2 as well as STAR WARS 3. I don't know the name of the character yet, but according to my source, Smits' deal is done and only requires a few days of filming. However, his role in SW3 is much larger and will require more time from the actor. I trust my source and his credibility, which I outline on the CA STAR WARS 2 page.

 

      Details are on http:www.corona.bc.ca/films/details/sw2.html. If Lucas is serious about shooting this film starting next month, there should be some kind of casting announcement fairly soon, you think, right? Well, this is Lucas...

 

      Patrick@CA

 

Some hours later the story began appearing on other websites across the 'net. However, when it ran on Ain't it Cool News, the e-mail had been slightly modified and the story altered in such a way that I felt Coming Attractions role had been downplayed, that the efforts of AICN were more notable than CA's work in delivering this scoop.

Here's the beginning of the AICN news item about the CA story:

 

     "Smits lands a small role in SW #2 and 3

 

      "OK so this isn't a cutting edge scoop, I (Father Geek) am posting it for the benefit of our readers that DON'T have the time to surf around to all the different film sites out there on the web. Actually Patrick over at CA ran this by us here at AICN before it went up on his site and then instantly everywhere else, but, Stone me if you like, Father Geek was waiting for some more info to expand it into a story not just an unconfirmed sound bite, however it seems no expanded story is forthcoming. This DOES seem to be fact not rumor though, any way here is what is KNOWN at present..."

 

By choosing to write it up this specific way, AICN paints a picture that it was holding onto this information (that they claim to have also possessed, but chose not to run on their site) to expand into a larger story and not just an "unconfirmed" sound bite. If this had been a one-time incident, it wouldn't be worth the bother to address in any sort of column. But this has been an on-going method of reporting other sites' news on AICN. I've seen similar instances where a story run on CA is "downplayed" by the intro the AICN webmaster writes for their audience. I ask the question to AICN, why is this done? What purpose does it suit to put this kind of spin on another site's story, if not to make the efforts of the other site seem secondary to what kind of stories appear on AICN?

There have been other recent examples of this sort of reporting. For instance, this article on AICN about CA's exclusive photo of Rogue from the X-Men movie that I e-mailed AICN to credit CA as the source, and I was promised that it would be looked in to. It never was. This article that addressed the coverage CA gave to a sneak-peek of The Patriot makes a point of saying why the AICN guys didn't think it was worth attending for them, but isn't really supposed to be about when the film's latest trailer is coming out? CA doesn't do this when we report other sites' stories. Does AICN know how hard two of our CA writers worked on following up these stories? Did they stop to think about what kind of effort we may have put into getting these scoops, which we cared about trying to confirm sources, maintain contacts within the business, and try and report the story in the best means possible? When I read "intros" like this for CA stories on AICN, I don't get that sense at all.

Now to the second part of the AICN story that disturbs me. You might consider it a small item in scale of its importance, but after hearing stories from others who seem to have had similar experiences, I think it matters greatly -- and it offers further evidence that AICN is trying to downplay stories to promote their superiority.

My original message started off with the words "Hey gang," mainly because I was addressing about two dozen sites/individuals and wanted to keep it loose and show no favoritism. But when it appeared on AICN, the webmaster who chose to write up this story edited my e-mail.

Instead of "Hey gang," now I'm reading the words "Harry, etc." Check AICN's original story for yourself. Those two words, no matter how slight they might seem to you...I had chosen the former address to the group that received my email for a specific reason. This wasn't a scoop specifically geared for Ain't it Cool News and everyone else was secondary. Why had the AICN webmaster done this? Did he figure his audience was too dumb to figure out what I was trying to state...or as I was wondering, is it merely another subtle way that the webmaster chose to make AICN seem more important in the scheme of things than the other sites?

As I said earlier, this isn't the first time CA has had a grievance with something AICN writes. Both Harry and I have had on-going debates over the years all about the nature of what we do. We've rarely seen eye-to-eye. Ultimately, his site is run the way he sees fit. I make it no secret I dislike the way he reviews movies, that he includes personal stories about his movie-going experience that don't relate to the picture itself; Harry doesn't see a problem with it. But I think it matters.

Five years ago a CA reader named Harry Knowles wrote to me and said he wasn't being properly credited for a news item about the Star Wars Special Edition movie. I wrote back to him and added his credit to the CA page. Soon after Harry began his site. I remember in those early days that he took a couple of sly swipes at CA, about how his site would be updating more regularly than that other site. I took it in stride and addressed my complaints privately. While I didn't like the way Harry set about reviewing or addressing news stories on his site, he had all the right in the world to run his site using his own voice.

But AICN is acting in a public medium, and like it or not, it's considered a form of journalism. Just because AICN chooses to print its reviews or news stories in a different method than traditional media, I still believe that there should exist certain lines that you don't cross. I had debated with Harry in the past over moral boundaries that I think webmasters shouldn't cross, and I would e-mail AICN when I felt something appeared on that site that didn't match up with the story that appeared on CA. I also tried to address the other problems I felt brought down my respect for AICN. Unfortunately, our debates didn't ever seem to resolve any of these issues. Which is how we arrived as last Friday and to the letter.

Last Friday I sent out another e-mail to the names on the SW2 notice. This time I addressed the changes to my original e-mail that had appeared on the AICN news story, wanting to make sure that everyone understood where CA had been coming from when I originally sent off the e-mail. I also said that I wasn't going to let this go unnoticed; private e-mails with AICN were getting no results, and I was going to address the matter publicly in today's Director's Cut column.

What happened next was a flood of e-mails from webmasters who also had similar stories to share. It's not my place to speak about anyone else's experiences save what's happened with CA, but the e-mails seemed to indicate that other sites had been burned in the past by AICN, and that they wished something could be done.

It was then suggested by another person that perhaps a intelligently written, non-emotional e-mail could be sent to AICN and signed by the individuals who felt the site was casting a poor light on the public's perception of Internet movie websites. Like it or not, the public does perceive what AICN represents as the entire picture of the 'net. For AICN to maintain it's not bound by journalistic ethics or boundaries, yet be seen in a wider public spotlight as an online source for movie news and reviews is a conflicting message, don't you think?

To save us from uncertainty, I agreed to draft the first version of the letter. It seemed right, since my e-mail had sparked off this debate. Everyone seemed to agree, and I wrote up what I thought was a fairly written letter to explain our grievances to AICN and how we believe it affects us as a whole community.

This is the letter I wrote:

 

      To the webmasters of "Ain't it Cool News":

 

      Ever since the explosion of the Internet, one of the highest-visible segments of it has been online film community. Today there are dozens of websites, columns, chat rooms and the like that allow movie fans the opportunity to discuss and read about the latest news from inside Hollywood. However, one of the areas that has not been approached in significant detail is the matter of what kind of professional etiquette should exist on the 'net between the webmasters of these sites. A number of us, the site operators, writers, and webmasters feel that your site, "Ain't it Cool News", has been unfairly painting a picture that reflects poorly on the reputation of these other websites, and the public's perception of the Internet film journalistic community.

      There have been numerous occasions where material that has been sent in good faith to AICN has been modified, or edited to make it appear that AICN has been the sole originator of this material. Many times appropriate credit for the original site or individual that broke this news story has been ignored, or down-played, or modified to make it appear AICN was the source of this news story. When feedback has been sent to AICN often there's been no retraction, no conversation, no recognition that an email has been received. When a rebuttal has been posted in the "Talkback" section of the website, sometimes it is erased from the conversation -- again, no explanation, no reason. When some of us have addressed these inconsistencies with the webmasters of AICN in private exchanges, excuses have been made that AICN doesn't need to follow the same code of conduct that adopted in the journalistic media. In the realms of journalism, this would be considered to be arrogant to its peers, its audience, and the medium in general. We feel that this is not an acceptable excuse.

      The same practices and accountability should hold true to all of the online community. No one can doubt that AICN is perceived by the general media to be the largest, and most popular, film website of its kind. But when a site receives such accolades, shouldn't it be mindful of its audience and try and provide them with the most accurate reporting they can provide? Shouldn't its operators be held to the same level of accountability as television programs, newspapers, movie critics and so on? Shouldn't there exist some kind of ethical, moral code that makes it a part of the larger community, and not come across as an arrogant outsider? We believe so.

      We feel that the actions of the webmasters of "Ain't it Cool News" perpetuate an image of unprofessional and unethical attitudes in web journalism that reflects poorly on the entire online film community. We hope that in the future this will change.

 

      Signed,

      [the undersigned]

 

Any changes to the letter were to be included in a later draft. Then the letter was to be sent off to AICN, and if no response was heard, we would post the letter publically on the sites that signed the letter.

Unfortunately, someone in the mailing list sent the letter (before it had been seriously discussed, reviewed, and revised to a final agreed-upon form), off to AICN. AICN then decided it was appropriate to post the letter, including the names of the participants on the mailing list -- participants who at the time did not decide to sign the letter -- publicly on that site. Not only was this action in incredibly bad taste for AICN, by printing only a portion of the dialogue between the e-mail participants, it painted an incomplete picture of the entire situation. Of course, no one at AICN sees any wrong in posting the e-mail addresses of thirty people, nor was there any e-mails sent to these individuals asking why this debate was taking place. Instead, AICN brought it out into a public forum -- and presented the subject to its readership incomplete. After all, why should such matters as following up on the story matter to AICN staffers when they say they're not journalists, right? Yet it's no secret that there are plans for a Ain't it Cool News TV show, or that AICN hosts screening of movies by studios, or that AICN staffers are given the same treatment as mainstream reviewers. So if they're not journalists, they're not bound by a code of conduct. So that means anything goes, right?

What's most curious is that Harry Knowles, when he addressed the matter yesterday (Sunday) on AICN, chose only one topic from the letter: the matter of credit. Nothing was mentioned of the claims that peoples e-mails have been modified from their original content, or that feedback has disappeared from his site. Nothing was made mention of the rebuttals that are sometimes made in the viewer feedback part of the AICN site that disappear. In fact, Harry went out of his way to again, make a point that AICN had received the Smits casting rumor "about 30 minutes before." Again, why do that? What's the point in doing that when the topic Harry has chosen is, as Harry states, scooping me with my editorial? Instead, why not keep the matter on focus and address these issues if they're wrong? Why change the subject? And again, this isn't the first time AICN and controversy have butted heads; the incorrect Oscar nominee list from last February is a prime example, or the reversal of Harry's review of 1998's Godzilla.

I believe these are important points to be addressed if we're supposed to treat AICN as a respectable peer in the online movie news biz. They are not sour grapes; they are about mutual respect and integrity. One of the aspects of CA that I'm most proud of is the way we try and strive to play fair with everyone, including material that AICN breaks first. We would expect the same sort of respect in return -- and for our audiences. I think everyone agrees there shouldn't be no games going on behind the scenes, no ulterior motives to posting stories or breaking news items.

In the future I plan to vigorously defend CA if its online reputation is attacked again. AICN is only painting a picture of it being an outsider to the web community, that it's not held accountable. It's important that CA's side of the story was told, and if there are others out there with similar stories, perhaps it's time to start telling them. And if someone at AICN is up for it, let's have a forum at the San Diego Comic Convention this July where Harry Knowles is a Guest of Honor. I plan to be there. Perhaps it's time we started talking about an online rule of ethics that movie news sites should follow. It can only benefit everyone.

 

      Other sites and forums where this matter is being discussed:

      (New info and sites added June 22nd:)

 

The second part of Film Threat's second part of their article about AICN's practises is now online. It features an interview with Harry Knowles.

 

Coming Soon! now has its editorial online, as well as shares a AICN incident that happened to its sister site, SpidermanHype.com.

Rob Worley, webmaster of Comics2Film, has also written an editorial about the matter.

Reel.com has a story about the incident.

C.H.U.D. and its messsage forum.

Cinema Confidential and its messsage forum.

Rough Cut's David Poland comments on these events.

Film Threat's article about this weekend's events.

TMNC Movies's webmaster John Shea speaks his piece, and invites comments on his site's forums.

 

Film Threat is running the first of a two-part article about AICN webmaster Harry Knowles, and it mentions the incidents listed in this editorial.

GunnLace has a RealAudio interview with Patrick about the matter and how this editorial was responded to at AICN.

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