Kotaku, Laura Kate Dale, and the Sad State of Clickbait Journalism

At this point, anyone with any integrity and honesty is aware that online journalism, particularly video game journalism, is a shambling, soulless husk of what real journalism should be, but a recent example from Kotaku UK and Laura Kate Dale is particularly pathetic on several levels.

On Thursday, Dale published a piece titled Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s Persona 5 DLC Includes a Disability Slur. Within, Dale, with absolutely no sourcing, claims a Persona 5 track sung by a Japanese woman in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate contains the word “retarded.”

Ignoring the fact that Dale’s claim is a ridiculous one to make for numerous reasons (the term “retarded” has no lyrical context within the song, it’s sung by a Japanese woman speaking English and is clearly a mispronounced word, it’s in a Nintendo game so obviously nothing inappropriate would be included, etc.), this story is an example of just how hard games journalism can fail and breach basically every basic ethical tenant of the profession along the way.

It wasn’t until the story was being blasted by literally all sides that Kotaku claimed first one then several Super Smash Bros. players reached out with concerns about the offending lyric. Trusting readers without verification was Kotaku’s first mistake.

As the editor for a local newspaper, I get comments, concerns, and claims from readers all the time. They’ll inform me of something I’m unaware of, and instead of simply taking their word for it and running whatever they tell me, I vet their claims. I reach out to sources and wait for confirmation and a response before running anything. Following these steps takes time and, well, work, but it’s just common sense because doing anything less isn’t reporting the news but creating it, which is never a journalist’s job.

By reaching out to Nintendo and Deep Silver but not waiting for a response before running the piece, Kotaku published a one-sided article that made the “offending” parties look bad when in reality they had done nothing wrong. This is a huge journalism no-no. In fact, some courts might consider this libel.

At the very least, Dale could have sourced the claims she made in her article instead of writing it in such a way as to imply Kotaku discovered the misheard lyric. By attributing the initial claim, which is journalism 101, Kotaku would have covered themselves at least a bit once it was discovered their article was bogus, but I guess pride truly does come before the fall.

Not long after the piece broke, Nintendo confirmed what everyone already knew was true: The lyric is not “retarded.” It’s been two days since Dale’s piece went live, and, despite being completely false, it remains online in its original state with no update. Kotaku claims some back-end changes are making article updates slower to appear, which is questionable in itself, but the fact remains lies on a high-end games journalism site are live for anyone to read, and an update amending the original piece is completely separate from it.

In an ideal world, journalists wouldn’t be stirring up nonexistent controversy and nonsense in the pursuit of clicks, but sites like Kotaku have created a monster. In the world of online journalism, truth doesn’t turn a profit—outrage, even false outrage, does. I’m sure Dale’s piece was Kotaku UK’s most-read article of the week, maybe the month, and the separate update is just another way to get more clicks and ad revenue without having the sacrifice the cash cow that is their original false story.

As a journalist, this kind of garbage makes me weep for the industry’s future. The newspapers I work for would lose all respect for themselves and from their audiences if they pulled half the nonsense Kotaku just got away with. If I did anything close to what Dale did, I would lose my job, and there would be a noticeable blow to my publication’s credibility, but when it comes to video game journalism, it’s just another week.

Dale claims it was her boss who altered her piece from being questioning of the lyrics to definitively claiming them as offensive. She said she was prohibited from defending herself when the blowback came. It honestly sounds like both Dale and her boss are trying to shove the blame onto each other (I’m sure that’s great for morale), but in the end, it doesn’t matter to the audience who’s most responsible. Dale should take some heat for having her name attached to lies, and her boss should take some for publishing unvetted claims on the site, but it’s Kotaku’s readers and journalism as a whole who suffer most.

Regardless, I don’t trust Dale’s claims of innocence. She has a history of lying, stirring up drama, and just being a bad journalist.

I first learned about Dale when I started up an indie gaming site with some colleagues in college. At the time, Dale was starting her own project, Indie Haven, with the backing of a few professional games journalists.

Since then, Dale’s career has taken off. Despite numerous controversies that would discredit any other journalist covering any other beat, Dale has thrived. She will weather this storm, too, and come out in a better position with more people knowing who she is. In the world of video game journalism, apparently even negative attention is a plus.

As for me, I’ll keep covering topics with integrity and honesty, even if it’s the opposite that makes one a household name.

Questions? Comments? Concerns? Talk to me on Twitter @scrivonaut.

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