About anonymous sources and Kotaku...

Two stories on Kotaku last week triggered some reader questions about how we use anonymous sources, how reliable they are, what it means when you see an anonymously-sourced story on Kotaku and, frankly, whether we're practicing what we're preaching. I'd like to address that here.

As both editor-in-chief of Kotaku and a reporter who has been covering video games for a decade, I take all aspects of reporting about games seriously. Maybe you can tell. Maybe you can't. We can be very casual about a lot of things at Kotaku, share lots of opinions, sometimes try to make you laugh and so on. But as its core mission, I want Kotaku to reveal the truth about video games. I want it do that through reporting and through criticism, trafficking in both the external truth revealed through reporting and the internal truth of a reviewer or critic's honest appraisal of a game. Because of that, I will always be proudest of our best reporting and I will always be most upset when I feel we fail to deliver you the best reporting possible.

Getting a story right thrills me. Getting a story wrong nauseates me. Thankfully, the former is far, far more common on Kotaku than the latter. And in the case of the latter, it is our responsibility to always correct reporting errors and to do so in a transparent way. No journalistic outlet is perfect. Everyone needs to run a correction at some point; the better outlets can keep corrections to a minimum and are clear about them when they do.

Anonymous sources are, I believe, an essential part of reporting. Naturally, they introduce their own set of risks. They raise questions that skeptical readers should always ask. Why is the anonymous source not able to share their identity? What does that lack of public accountability indicate regarding the source's confidence in the information they are sharing? Is the risk of them outing themselves valid? All of that is weighed against the quality and relevance of their information—in the case of Kotaku, that's the relevance of their information to a readership of people who love video games. I and the rest of my reporting team would prefer to always let you, the reader, know who has given us the information we're reporting. Sometimes it's simply not an option.


There are, nevertheless, a few things you can count on when you see an anonymous source in a Kotaku story.

First, we know who they are or, in very rare instances where we can't, we will have at least have locked down the information they're sharing as being true. We'll often hear from people who don't initially reveal their identity to us. We're happy to get anonymous tips. We'll look into the more interesting ones and, if we choose to report them, we'll find out who the source is. If we can't meet them in person, we might ask them to send us a picture of their driver's license, for example, to verify their identity. We expect at least that level of trust from the source—that they should be able to tell us who they are, even if the public can't know because it might threaten their job, their relationship with someone, etc.


This should distinguish our use of anonymous sources from those supplying the rumors of a Nintendo Fusion console last week, which Jason Schreier wrote about as he traced some eyebrow-raising rumors about a new Nintendo console back to reporters who couldn't account for who gave them that information. Contrast that with sources for anonymously-sourced stories such as Jason's piece about bad working conditions at an indie game development studio or, of all things, this piece about the black-and-white-striped pre-release Xbox One. Or this one about the then-unannounced next Aliens game. Our fall-of-LucasArts coverage, to give you another example. We knew exactly who the sources were. We just weren't at liberty to publicize their identities. Their information, time has shown, was correct.

The second thing to know about our use of anonymous sources, is that we do our best to give you, the reader, some sense of the caliber and quantity of those sources. While some reporters may use a phrase like "sources say" when they in fact only have one source, at Kotaku, I expect my reporters to not fudge the numbers—nor will I ever do so. If there is just one anonymous source, that should always be clear in the story. Ideally, we will also be able to narrow down that source for readers, specifying them as, say, an executive-level source or a source familiar with the Japanese game industry or what have you. That may not seem like a lot of specificity, but it should help you understand, even if just vaguely, the nature of the source.


The third thing to know is that we have checked out the source's information to the best of our ability. That's where I personally tripped while reporting a story last week regarding GameStop's accidental orders for the cancellation of pre-orders for the Wii U version of Watch Dogs. That started as a rumor that I tried to chase down. While I will investigate any new anonymous tipsters' information and bounce it off other public and non-public sources, I will sometimes put extra credence in the assertions of a source I've used multiple times. The thinking is: they were right the last two, three, seven, eight times... they've never been wrong about this aspect of the gaming scene... so they're probably right this time, too.

Last Friday, I checked in with one of my regularly-correct sources about the rumor making the rounds online that GameStop in Italy was canceling pre-orders of the Wii U version of Watch Dogs and that the game had been removed from GameStop Italy's computer systems. The rumor was too flimsy on its own, so I bounced it off a source who has always been correct about retail matters regarding various retailers. The source told me that GameStops in the U.S. had experienced the same cancellation order in their computer systems. My mistake was to treat that source as corroborating the Italian report rather than—and this is obvious in retrospect—introducing a new detail about the U.S. Having the retail side of the story down, or so I thought, I reached out to the game's publisher, Ubisoft. Ubisoft no-commented, offered no off-the-record indication about what was going on and left it at that. I published my article, confident that GameStop had issued cancellations.


I noted in the initial story that the game was still available on GameStop's website, a red flag I should have heeded more carefully. Shortly after the story was published, I saw some readers saying they hadn't had their pre-orders cancelled. I saw that another outlet had received comment that GameStop Italy was saying the whole thing was a glitch and that pre-orders for the Wii U game would resume. Alarmed, I did a few standard things I should have and normally would have done from the get-go: contacting GameStop stores and reaching out to GameStop's public relations department. The former said the game was still available for pre-order. The latter exchanged e-mails with me, first confirming the accidental cancellation in Italy and then, when I asked about the U.S. cancellation I'd heard about, saying "Yes. It has been corrected." Around the same, time, I heard from my source, who said that they'd double-checked their info and, it turned out, just that morning GameStop in the U.S. had rescinded the U.S. cancellation. That rendered the whole affair moot and negated the need for any article on Kotaku.

I updated my story twice in the hour after it was published and did so as clearly as possible, noting my mistake. While I had been right to not run the Italy rumor on its own and had been right to bounce it off a good source and off of Ubisoft, I'd been mistaken in thinking there was nothing more to be gained by contacting GameStop directly. My source had been correct about the initial cancellation order, but only up until a point, it seemed. I'd failed to imagine what it was they didn't yet know when I'd spoken to them. I'd made an amateurish mistake due to veteran hubris—a lesson that anyone can learn from, I hope.


I pride myself in the accuracy of my reporting. I can point to spot-on, anonymously-sourced stories about unreleased gaming hardware or, say, this one about the then-unannounced Titanfall. When I have to use anonymous stories for a story I think is unusually important—such as whether the then-upcoming Xbox One is going to require an Internet connection to start games—I'll do so with as much multiple sourcing and transparency about the sources' identities as possible. I'll check and double-check, as will all my reporters. You can assume our anonymous sources are good (you've even heard of some of them, I bet), and you can rest assured that a slip like Friday's is something I personally will do my best to ensure never happens again. I can't remember a similar situation with my work in the last decade and hope there will be another decade before it happens again. Everyone makes mistakes, but I don't have to be ok with that.

Anonymous sources are important, as is the trust that you put into this site. My team and I will continue to do everything we can to enable you to have the highest confidence in the articles we report, whether our sources are anonymous or not. Our reporting should always tell you what we know and, as much as possible, it should take into account what we don't yet know. There's always more truth to discover.


To contact the author of this post, write to stephentotilo@kotaku.com or find him on Twitter @stephentotilo.