Or: When backlash against the Church of Journalism can go too far.
Video games journalism is a great field for new journalists to look at, because it’s relative young age means that the field and the journalists who inhabit it are still really finding their way. It’s fascinating because it is a journalism genre that is growing at the same time the entire field of journalism is significantly changing.
Video game journalism has only recently taken on ‘real’ journalism. For the first decade or so it would have been difficult to distinguish journalistic organs from industry PR publications, the only thing journalistic about early magazines like PC Gamer being numerical reviews. Rarely was in-depth journalism part of the equation. In the last decade however, with the rise of the internet and the ease of independent publication, game journalism has become a real thing. All the standard forms of journalism we see in politics, finance, local and the rest are now rising tasks for games journalists.
While things are changing, the field of game journalism faces three major challenges:
- Video games journalism spawned from a mostly non-journalistic magazine industry which was completely dependent on the video game industry to formally recognize them and deliver to them review materials (the games themselves).
- Video games journalism has grown to gangly adulthood in an age where everything about journalism is in complete flux due to changing advertising methods and the new options given by the internet.
- The young journalists leading the genre have come of age in a time when we increasingly do not trust the old journalists, but when we don’t trust the entire methodology of journalism. For good reason too, as various scandals, misguided attempts to find advertising dollars, and plain old human idiocy have shown the entire journalism establishment to be untrustworthy.
In journalism, games journalism is our canary in the coal mine. That’s why anyone who calls themselves a journalist should pay attention to the recent controversy around the Games Media Awards.
What you should read first:
- One of the copies of EuroGamer’s original article about the ethical problems with the Games Media Awards: A Table of Doritos.
- Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s John Walker’s blog post titled “An Utter Disgrace” – about the ethical issues of the GMAs, the proper response of misrepresented journalists, UK libel laws, and the ethics of journalism.
- The conversation between Cameron Kunzelman (who I do not know) and Ethan Gach, a journalist who I worked with at Nightmare Mode, about the topic, which made me think enough about it to write the post. (Here’s my contribution.)
- The excellent Leigh Alexander’s Gamasutra post on video game culture’s identity crisis.
- A Rock, Paper, Shotgun story about how the games industry tries to buy journalists’ ethics.
- Additional historical context: The Gerstmann controversy, in which Gamespot allegedly fired an editor for publishing a bad review of a game sponsoring the site. Penny-arcade. | Shacknews. | Valleywag.
At the crux of video game journalism’s ethics conflict lies what I think of as “The Access Paradox.”
The Access Paradox:
With modern technology, it is increasingly easy for anyone to get information out themselves, rather than depending on journalistic publications. This means that any given information source is can more seriously weigh publishing information or news themselves rather than give access to a journalist who may not respond favorably. This creates a paradox for journalists where they must consider criticism or boosting of a source against a level of continued access that may make or break their careers.
The access paradox is something that is very much a focus of college journalism, and I saw frequently both working in the field and in the excellent reporting done by folks who cover it. However, it exists all over journalism and no where more prominently than in gaming journalism. Why is this issue so significant in games journalism? Because no where else is the hand quite so close to the mouth. A games journalist who has been denied access to review copies of games is not going to go very far. Not only that, but the community is still pretty small. Games journalists, PR folk, and developers are a relatively close-knit group compared to other journalists and their subjects and mediators.
This closeness between subject and reporter brings on an even heavier version of the access paradox. Just like I saw in college journalism, the pressure to be favorable to a subject is even greater when being negative can result in not only professional, but also personal ostracism.
The pressure of the access paradox is something that most reporters are probably not even conscious of, but it sits there and even on a subconscious level it can change our behavior. That pressure grows every day as industry self-publication grows in both opportunity and effectiveness.
The real threat to the professional journalist isn’t the ad-buy, but the CCO, a C-suite position of rising popularity, it stands for Chief Content Officer. It’s a position for a company interested in running their own ‘journalism’ outlets. Note the quote marks. Even the most well-intentioned company cannot create an internal newsroom that stands free of bias, not when they are paying the journalists to report on the industry signing their paychecks.
So what’s the solution?
The inevitable push-back against distrusted journalism has come as the internet makes history more open. It has become ever more difficult for journalists to claim a lack of bias when college op-eds and Facebook posts start showing up in the internet’s archives. So, we push to rethink what makes a journalist.
Leading this push? NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen. Rosen has formulated terms to help us think about ‘journalism as it is’. He talks about journalists’ claim to The View from Nowhere, and how it is completely and irrevocably flawed. His solution: for journalists to be transparent about their biases. His solution is a good one and journalists are beginning to look at transparency as the new objectivity. This is great, because transparency allows us to escape the flawed myth of non-bias and avoid the church of the savvy.
But! When reality smacks us across the mouth, it turns out not to work. Why? Because transparency can’t be the new objectivity as long as some journalists pretend to either or both. The Access Paradox teaches us that as long as one journalist is has fallen to boosting a source to preserve professional credentials then there is a conduit for the industry to go to while blocking the truly transparent out.
If the gaming industry can buy one journalist, why bother with allowing access to another?
As long as this is true, transparency is a flawed solution. It is far too much effort to force transparency on journalists who don’t subscribe to it (or even those who pretend do, but only partially do so) and trying to do so is ethically questionable.
Perhaps, in political journalism, where they’ve become used to giving journalists access, transparency is all you need. But in growing journalism fields like games journalism, the subject isn’t used to allowing access. The result:
This club, this weird club of pals and buddies that make up a fair proportion of games media, needs to be broken up somehow. They have a powerful bond, though – held together by the pressures of playing to the same audience. Games publishers and games press sources are all trying to keep you happy, and it’s much easier to do that if they work together. Publishers are well aware that some of you go crazy if a new AAA title gets a crappy review score on a website, and they use that knowledge to keep the boat from rocking. Everyone has a nice easy ride if the review scores stay decent and the content of the games are never challenged. Websites get their exclusives. Ad revenue keeps rolling in. The information is controlled. Everyone stays friendly. It’s a steady flow of Mountain Dew pouring from the hills of the money men, down through the fingers of the weary journos, down into your mouths. At some point you will have to stop drinking that stuff and demand something better.
In the modern day, when everyone has access to the audience, our ethics as journalists are only measured against the expectations of the lowest denominator. For games journalists that means that our ethical considerations are measured against the PR people who work for the industry. Transparency turned against us. After all, the PR people are perfectly transparent. We know who they work for. They have total access. But the journalists who want that same level of access are forced into the access paradox of journalism, that to get and maintain access may require bad journalism.
This may only be a serious issue in games journalism right now, but it won’t stay in games journalism. As it becomes easier and more effective for journalistic subjects to whip up their own news instead of working with reporters, the pressure of the access paradox is going to grow and eventually anyone who lays claim to the title of journalist is going to find their ethics pitted against their access and there may not be a good way to save both their ethics and their jobs.
EDIT: Boing Boing reports “Game writer out of a job after libel complaint.”