Decisions on Deadline: Online Game Puts Ethics to the Test

Posted on May 9, 2014

“My goal…is to engage the general public in a conversation about public faith in the media, media ethics, and why we need to support institutional journalism even in this era of democratized media.” – Samantha Grant, filmmaker

Recently Independent Lens premiered the film, A Fragile Trust, the shocking story of Jayson Blair, the most infamous serial plagiarist of our time, and how he unleashed the scandal that rocked The New York Times and the entire world of journalism. 


Inspired by the film, Decisions on Deadline takes the story to another level with a fast-paced game that puts players in the shoes of working journalists as they report on the daily drama of life in Southside, a fictional American town. We asked producers Samantha Grant and Brittney Shepherd about their foray into making games, their hopes for impact, and ethics and journalism in the digital age. 

How did the film, A Fragile Trust, inspire the game?

Samantha Grant (SG): I was a BAVC MediaMaker fellow in 2011, and it was there, during that fellowship, that I first dreamed up the idea for a journalism ethics game. Brittney was attending the fellowship with me, as the co-producer of the film, and at one point during a presentation on gaming, I turned to her as said 'Yes! A Game!" I wanted to make the game because I realized that the film I was making was bringing up a lot of problems in the field of journalism without offering any solutions. I’m the type of person who, when I see a problem, I immediately start thinking about solutions.

Track your career from Cub Reporter to International Correspondent.
Track your career from Cub Reporter to International Correspondent.

In the case of Decisions on Deadline, the problem we were trying to solve was two fold. First off, we were hoping to build something that would make learning and teaching journalism ethics more fun and interactive. Right now, most ethics classes are based on teaching and discussing historical case studies. In addition, we wanted to build something that incorporated information and scenarios that are particular to the digital age – like what do you do with Twitter? What if a source tries to friend you on Facebook? As a journalism educator (I teach at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Stanford’s Knight Fellowship program) I’m very interested in the future of the field, and I see how important it is to at least try to create some ethical parameters around how to use all the new tools and methods of communication that are out there today. 

Brittney Shepherd (BS): My experience as a BAVC Mediamaker taught me that the exciting (but often challenging) part of being a documentary filmmaker in today’s world is that you can (and must!) engage audiences with the content of your story through various platforms. The time is right for audiences to engage with the storylines, content, themes and characters of documentary films in ways that just weren’t possible in the past. In the case of A Fragile Trust, it was obvious that we wanted a wide swath of people — not just journalists or mediamakers — to be interested in the concept of media literacy and why institutional journalism was important. What better lure to do so than an entertaining and enriching game that put audiences directly in the shoes of working journalists reporting on fictional stories? 

What is it like to go from making a non-fiction narrative to a fictionalized game, one that is rooted in a real-world stories?

Both: Creating a narrative documentary film about a real historical event requires a completely different process than creating a non-narrative fictionalized game world. With the film, we were weaving a tale about a series of events that already happened, but with the game, we were starting from scratch. We knew we wanted the game to be broadly appealing to a wide general audience in addition to being useful to our core audience of journalism educators and students. With that in mind, we wanted the stories to be fun and entertaining, and a bit tongue in cheek, so that even for people who are not interested in media ethics, this would be a fun experience.

What are your hopes for the game’s impact?

SG: I consider the game to be one piece of a larger transmedia project about journalism and the role of the media in the digital age. My goal with all the elements in this project – the game, the app [in development], the film, and more – is to engage the general public in a conversation about public faith in the media, media ethics, and why we need to support institutional journalism even in this era of democratized media. The people we’re trying to engage in this conversation range from young people who seem to be completely disinterested in the mainstream media to older folks who still get newspapers delivered to their doorsteps every morning. 

That’s why we’ve created different entry points into the conversation for different populations – some people will watch the film, some will play the game, some will use the app, and some will do all three. As long as each person walks away from the experience and talks to their communities about what they’ve just learned, then the impact of this project will bubble up into the way people think about journalism and the media more broadly. There’s a lot of skepticism about journalists and the way they operate, and the goal of Decisions on Deadline is to kind of introduce people — both people familiar with journalism and those who don’t really know much about it — to the idea that there is a generally accepted set of rules by which journalists are supposed to operate when they are out there reporting. 

In addition, since anybody can publish work online and put it forward as journalism, it’s important to make sure that people understand that one of the things that distinguishes journalism from storytelling is the set of ethics and standards of practice under which the work is created. If you’re going to call something journalism, there’s an expectation about how the piece was created and that has to do with the ethics that were employed while you were working. So it’s a small goal really… I just want to restore public faith in the media. No big deal. 

To learn more about Decisions on Deadline and play the game, please click here.

We also knew that the game play needed to be a rich and direct experience for the players, meaning, we wanted it to feel like the players were actually reporting a story. To this end we created a ‘desk’ interface where much of the game play happens — along with some travel videos because we all know journalists should NOT just sit at their desks to report a story — and we made sure to include lots of images, sounds (in the form of voicemails coming into your phone), and real world ‘Facebook’ and ‘Twitter’ scenarios. 


From our blog

  1. ITVS Welcomes Brandii Rice as Head of Business and Legal Affairs

    August 10, 2023

    ITVS is pleased to welcome Brandii Rice as our new Head of Business and Legal Affairs. In her role Rice will oversee business and legal affairs across the ITVS brand portfolio. In addition, she will guide licensing and business strategies to support ITVS’ content development, production, distribution and audience development goals. She will join ITVS

  2. Carrie Lozano Will Lead ITVS as President & CEO, Succeeding Sally Jo Fifer

    June 7, 2023

    Carrie Lozano joins ITVS from the Sundance Institute, where she served as director of Documentary Film and Artist Programs, supporting boundary-breaking filmmakers across the globe. At ITVS, she will continue to protect independent artists’ voices, editorial control and copyright while elevating nonfiction storytelling as an essential strategy

  3. Lisa Tawil Joins the International Board of INPUT

    June 1, 2023

    Discover how Lisa Tawil's appointment to the International Board of INPUT strengthens worldwide collaboration in public media.