Crossing the Line

Why Some Media Members Need an Ethics Refresher

by , Jun 12, 2011 | 6:12 pm

Jon Katkin

OP-ED

Spend enough time around the professional poker circuit and you’ll quickly realize that it’s a very small and incestuous group. Players and media members spend hours, days and sometimes weeks together in casinos and card rooms around the world and, as expected, the close quarters inevitably lead to friendships (and, sometimes, more) between the two groups.

This is perfectly normal and, quite frankly, not a big deal in most cases. A poker pro sharing a drink or a meal with a player can be beneficial for both parties. And, so long as clear lines are kept between professional and personal relationships, there’s no real issue. When the lines are blurred, however, things become less clear.

Whether or not friendships affect reporting is irrelevant, because it’s the perception of impartiality that matters. If people paid to report on poker can’t separate personal feelings and biases from the stories they’re covering, how can anyone trust what they say or write?

We’re only a couple of weeks into this year’s WSOP and I’ve already seen plenty of instances where the line hasn’t just been blurred, but erased completely. Specifically, I’m referring to the increasing and increasingly annoying practice of poker journalists openly rooting for their friends during individual events.

Tackiness aside, this practice just makes the offending journalists look unprofessional. And maybe they are. The fact is, many of the reporters on the poker beat are young, inexperienced and have little, if any, professional journalism training. For many, these low-paying gigs are their first post-collegiate jobs and are merely a way to make some money in an industry they enjoy while they look for something better.

They don’t understand the importance of impartiality – or at least, the importance of maintaining the appearance of impartiality – because they’ve never been taught that journalists are supposed to remain objective about the stories and people they’re covering. Of course, this isn’t always easy or possible, but true professionals do everything they can to separate their personal feelings from the story they are reporting on. And, if they can’t, the good ones do their best to make their biases clear to their readers, viewers or listeners.

Take Maria Ho’s final table in the $5K No-Limit Hold ‘em tournament last week. While a number of journalists used their Twitter accounts to publicly root Maria on during the event – even as some of them were reporting on the action – others, like Change100, did the right thing and made it clear that they were not acting as media while sweating Maria. From her Twitter stream; “The badge is off for a while – railing @mariaho in the final four of the $5k NL. She just doubled through Allen Bari. Go Ho!”

All well and good, I can hear you saying, but at the end of the day, isn’t Change’s declaration overkill? Media members rooting on their friends is no big deal and it has nothing to do with real news.

Wrong.

Look at what’s going on in the poker world at the moment: the top three sites have been indicted by the DOJ, players are bitching about the fact that they can’t get their money off of Tilt, pros are suing their sponsors and skipping the WSOP, etc., etc., etc. These issues affect many of the pros that media members call friends and could possibly color their reporting of specific events.

And, in the end, whether or not friendships affect reporting is irrelevant, because it’s the perception of the reporter’s impartiality that matters. If the people who are being paid to report on the poker industry can’t be trusted to separate their personal feelings and biases from the stories they’re covering, how can anyone trust what they say or write?

Take me, for example. Some of you probably know that I used to work for one of the major online poker sites. Some of you don’t. Unless you know me personally, you probably don’t know which site I used to work for and, from reading what I write here, you should – ideally – never be able to figure that out. And, while I occasionally address issues surrounding online poker, I never, ever write or comment on anything specifically related to my former employer.

Why, you ask? Because I know a lot of people who still work at the company and I have a vested interest in seeing the business and the people running it succeed. In short, there’s a chance that I may not be able to report on the issues surrounding my former employer in an impartial or unbiased manner, so it’s best for me not to put myself in a position where my credibility can be questioned.

Sure, rooting for your friends when they go deep in a tourney is a “minor” ethical infraction in the grand scheme of things, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t good reasons why it shouldn’t be done. However, if you must play cheerleader, have the good sense not to do it publicly on Twitter.


Jon Katkin is a Pokerati contributing editor and industry veteran who writes about his personal poker at Chaos Theory. He’s impervious to your flames @JaKatkin.


  • Michael M.

    This reminds me a lot of my college days where I worked in a D-1 athletic department in a variety of capacities. When the work badge is on, it’s highly poor form to be rooting for your team. Even sports reporters who follow one team and suck up to players and coaches for access have to cool their jets when sitting on press row.

  • http://profiles.google.com/billrini Bill Rini

    No offense Jon, you know, because I love ya, but nobody expects the poker press to be impartial.  Most poker press is getting paid, ultimately, by poker rooms.  I’m not saying all of it is tainted but most of the big sites are.  

    Before you can talk about journalistic integrity in poker journalism you have to begin to eliminate all of the companies who would be out of existence if they weren’t getting paid affiliate commissions.  

  • BJNemeth

    This article is total linkbait to attract comments from the poker media. Cue the backlash in 3 … 2 … 1 …

    I’m kidding. I like what you wrote, but reality gets in the way of the ideals. Like Change100, I openly rooted for Maria at her final table, and like Change100, I took off my media badge to do it. I sat in the stands with Tiffany Michelle when they were playing down from nine to four, and even took some photos. (But only as a fan, and with regular fan access; I did not use my media access.)

    If you check my Twitter feed from the night I was in the stands, I was openly rooting for Maria. If you check it the next day while I was working the final table, I was not. 

    The next day, when Maria and Allen Bari played from the final four to a bracelet, I was working and covering that event. And if you read my updates on PokerListings, I’m certain there is no appearance of bias. As a reporter, that’s what I owe to my readers. 

    But Twitter is different. 

    I tweet from a personal account, not a professional one. In addition to poker, I tweet trips with my dog, BBQ meals, DisneyWorld with my niece, memories of my dog, and even politics and religion. If you follow me, you get me as a person, and not me as nothing but a poker reporter. On Twitter, I don’t owe anybody anything. 

    Friendships between media and players in the poker world is inevitable, and to ignore them or pretend that they don’t exist is just an idealistic fantasy.

  • BJNemeth

    This article is total linkbait to attract comments from the poker media. Cue the backlash in 3 … 2 … 1 …

    I’m kidding. I like what you wrote, but reality gets in the way of the ideals. Like Change100, I openly rooted for Maria at her final table, and like Change100, I took off my media badge to do it. I sat in the stands with Tiffany Michelle when they were playing down from nine to four, and even took some photos. (But only as a fan, and with regular fan access; I did not use my media access.)

    If you check my Twitter feed from the night I was in the stands, I was openly rooting for Maria. If you check it the next day while I was working the final table, I was not. 

    The next day, when Maria and Allen Bari played from the final four to a bracelet, I was working and covering that event. And if you read my updates on PokerListings, I’m certain there is no appearance of bias. As a reporter, that’s what I owe to my readers. 

    But Twitter is different. 

    I tweet from a personal account, not a professional one. In addition to poker, I tweet trips with my dog, BBQ meals, DisneyWorld with my niece, memories of my dog, and even politics and religion. If you follow me, you get me as a person, and not me as nothing but a poker reporter. On Twitter, I don’t owe anybody anything. 

    Friendships between media and players in the poker world is inevitable, and to ignore them or pretend that they don’t exist is just an idealistic fantasy.

  • katkin

    Bill - 

    My point has nothing to do with the institutional bias that some outlets may have. That’s a bigger issue that, unfortunately, will probably never be solved since we both know the poker news outlets can’t survive without corporate backing. On that scale, the problems are bigger, with sites covering or, more likely, not covering specific stories because of the potential damage to their bottom lines.

    But, even if the man behind the curtain is biased, I would still argue it’s in his best interests to have the faces of his organization – the reporters who the general public identifies with – at least appear to be impartial when it comes to their reporting.

    BJ – I fully agree that friendships between the media and the players are inevitable. I make that point myself.
    As you point out though, you made it clear that you were rooting for Maria as a friend when you were railing at the final table, not as member of the media. As you also point out, there’s a difference in your Twitter feed from that night and from the next day when you were there as credentialed media.

    That’s the key point — you know there’s a difference between the two roles, and you acted accordingly. Many others don’t see the difference and that’s where I have issues.

  • Rakewell

    I’m sympathetic to your point. But your perspective seems based on an assumption that there would be an appearance of journalistic neutrality absent such personal indiscretions from some young, naive, overly enthusiastic writers. 

    Surely you know that is not the case. The poker media are, to a large extent, already bought and paid for at the corporate level. Even if one didn’t know about the relationship between, say, PokerNews and PokerStars, looking at just about any randomly selected page or two of the PokerNews live blogging coverage of the WSOP shows that there is hugely disproportionate attention paid to the Stars pro team. 

    That’s far from the only example. This is a media industry the biggest outlets of which tiptoed oh-so-carefully around the poker world’s biggest scandal–the cheating at Absolute and UB–because they didn’t want to offend advertisers. 

    It seems that the “line” you’re talking about having been crossed is the one that ensures a perception of unbiased reporting. I submit that individual reporters cannot cross that line, because it doesn’t exist. It was erased with a big wad of cash a long time ago. Complaining about a conflict of interest revealed in reporters’ Twitter feeds while not mentioning the conflict of interest that exists because of business deals between the reporters’ employers and who they are reporting on, seems to miss the forest for the trees. 

  • donkey bomber

    What do you think about Dan openly bashing me? Tweeting that I’m fat and bald? Well?

  • http://pokerati.com Dan Michalski

    Go donkeybomber?

  • http://pokerati.com Dan Michalski

    i personally believe true objectivity is a farce — an impossible mark
    to achieve … but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t pursue it.

    of course as it pertains to poker media … dude, don’t tap the
    aquarium!

  • http://twitter.com/taopauly Pauly

    “Never make friends with the rockstars.” – Lester Bangs

    Watch this clip from “Almost Famous” for clarification…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kss5QLQlM9w

  • http://twitter.com/taopauly Pauly

    “Never make friends with the rockstars.” – Lester Bangs

    Watch this clip from “Almost Famous” for clarification…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kss5QLQlM9w

  • Micheledlewis

    This is one reason I gave up the badge.  I didn’t make money on my site to cover the series, my site was supposed to be my experience.  I got confused and was asked to write about certain things.  
    Eventually, clarity set in and I had to get off the fence.
    Good read, John.
    And Tom…. Dan bashes me too.

  • Waffles -

    Journalists are corrupt.. just read any daily newspaper or watch the news. Whatever corporate sponsor is backing them is what they report. The days of un-biased reporting left years ago.

  • Waffles -

    Journalists are corrupt.. just read any daily newspaper or watch the news. Whatever corporate sponsor is backing them is what they report. The days of un-biased reporting left years ago.

  • Waffles -

    Journalists are corrupt.. just read any daily newspaper or watch the news. Whatever corporate sponsor is backing them is what they report. The days of un-biased reporting left years ago.

  • http://twitter.com/lonmceachern Lon McEachern

    You wrote:,”And, while I occasionally address issues surrounding online poker, I never, ever write or comment on anything specifically related to my former employer.”
    Well, you should. You have a unique insight that could be beneficial to your readers when it comes to the online poker issue and you may be able to offer some real value instead of another useless page of speculation that we see so often.
    The fact that you used to work for the online site and are now a media member should compel you, instead of constrain you, to write about it as long as we see a disclaimer in the article.  Your journalistic integrity should have already been established with your readers and your fear of being perceived of having a “yellowed’ opinion should already have been allayed.
    If you have something to to say, say it. As long as we are fully aware of the source.

  • Poker Shrink

    Much Ado About Nothing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Johnny-Kampis/27435755 Johnny Kampis

    Coming from a newspaper journalism background, I was initially surprised at how the poker media world works…what with all the back slapping and overt favoritism practiced by some. With the cutbacks leading to more and more cheap and inexperienced labor, I’m afraid we’ll see more of the “young’uns” who don’t know anything about journalism ethics.

    Also, Despite what Waffles thinks, there are still plenty of good journalists out there today in the “real” media world.

  • NVMaxima191

    “In Poker you take the bitter with the sweet-Trust That Auntie”