Unbranding the Sheep: The Perils Of What We Call “Journalism”

Over the past eight years, I have made the move from someone who occasionally writes about video games on my personal blog, to someone who’s run a large-scale fan site, to someone who wrote for a decent site, to someone who helped build up another site, to someone who is now paid to write about video games. I’ve learned a lot along the way, the most important of which is the difference between just being a plonker who writes his opinions about video games, and being someone who takes a hard, intelligent, journalistic look at the games industry. It’s not as easy as people think to sit back, separate emotion from reality, and say what needs to be said while maintaining the facts, and this is something lost on a lot of people who get up a website and think they’re professionals because they got one interview. In the time since gaming weblogs became dime-a-dozen, there’s been a bit of a debate as to just what we do can be called. Are we journalists, or are we bloggers? A recent article by Joystiq-affiliated Massively pointed the spotlight on the difference once again, while implying that the vast majority of what we see cannot be journalism. I would recommend reading the piece – it’s an outstanding read, whether you agree with the gist of it or not – but the main point is that the vast majority of us can’t be journalists because we all get too close to the people that make the games. We’re fanboys at heart, who got into the business to either build up to a development position or just to rub elbows with the people who make games like sycophants, either of them being unwilling to get past PR spin to get the real story.

I think the author of the piece, Jef Reahard, makes a lot of good points. The fact is, we really don’t know what it takes to be actual journalists until we’re knee deep in the industry, unless we graduated from a degree-granting school of journalism, which most of us have not. However, I do know one thing that the average layman doesn’t understand, something that was touched upon: the ability for a journalist to do their job in this industry, properly, is virtually impossible, and shows no signs of changing.

Compare a “regular” journalist – one who reports on the world at large – with one in the games industry. When something happens in the world, a journalist is right there, watching and reporting. Even without gaining any information whatsoever – a stream of “no comments” – they can still see what they can see, report it, and run with the facts that they’ve gleamed therein while noting that there was no comment from anyone in a position to give one. In the games industry, there’s really nothing like that going on. Everything comes from the companies that make games, which usually require two levels of physical security to even get in the door. Therefore, the vast majority of stuff that we can report on is fed to us via watered down press releases. There simply is not that many ways of getting information. There are a few exceptions – such as ESRB ratings and domain name registrations – but these usually fall into the purview of “rumours” that would never be reported on by an association like the Associated Press, except to note what others believe to be happening. Part of the problem with us being seen as journalists is that too many people will run with almost anything and report it as a fact, but that’s a tale for another day.

Part of the reason we’ll collectively run with anything is simple: our sites need hits. On sites that are run largely on advertising and other mutually beneficial financial deals, these hits are necessary to bring home the bread. The advertising usually comes from other gaming companies, and the hits come from access to early code or previews. This is where we can’t really be “journalists” in the classical sense, because to do so would end up with us biting the hands that feed us. It’s very easy for a reader to say that they want total, brutal honesty, but then they simultaneously pour over the early reviews and news tidbits that come out while simultaneously flaming anything that points something they like – or even think they like – in a manner usually reserved for cultists. If a review or a piece of news, no matter how accurate or deeply analytical it is, comes in after the others have released it, readers will chastise that piece as being old, or yesterday’s news, and the writer of that piece will be red meat on N4G. This is even before I get into whether it’s critical or not. If it is, that company can simply write the critical party out of the loop. They won’t receive interviews, they won’t get early peeks at games, and they won’t get review code, which is where the majority of traffic comes from in magazines and on sites, and it’s how most writers break into this business. The company stops supporting the site, the site ends up late on reviews and with information, the eyeballs go elsewhere; it’s a vicious cycle, and if anyone thinks publisher pressure isn’t anything to be wary of, remember that the NPD Group was essentially neutered by big publishers not wanting potentially embarrassing information to get out. As a writer, publisher and developer pressure doesn’t bother me in the least bit – I’ll get my information some way or another – but to the people who sign our cheques, it’s a big deal, and I can assure you through both personal experience and anecdotal evidence that what happened to Jeff Gerstmann is just one well-publicized example of something that happens at any place of consequence all the time.

Simply put, publishers and developers have games sites by the proverbial short hairs on this issue. If we go against the grain and get blacklisted, it doesn’t hurt anyone in the slightest but the person getting blacklisted. Regular journalists don’t have this problem anywhere near to this degree. If Fox News is locked out of press briefings at the White House by Robert Gibbs, the resulting publicity bomb would not only become a talking point in and of itself, it would hurt the people – the White House – that withheld that group. If a gaming website is locked out of a press event, hey, there’s ten other places that are willing to do anything short of turning tricks behind a dumpster to get that spot. Furthermore, any of the tools that enable journalists to do their jobs – such as the Freedom of Information Act – aren’t applicable to games journalists because the FOIA doesn’t apply to private businesses, who only have to report earnings, and only if they’re public. Finally, when it comes to reporting on private businesses, other than serious financial issues such as recalls and the like, companies are usually hurt by leaks and the like. That just doesn’t happen much in this industry, and there’s no gaming equivalent of Wikileaks (nor should there be; Wikileaks handles real world problems). Really trying to dig for information that people don’t want you to report is usually fallacious, because that information is either tighter than a drum or already disseminated by people with exclusive access. Trust me, I’ve tried.

So what’s a journablogger, or a bloggist or whatever you want to call us, to do? It seems that the best formula in today’s day and age, where the desire for accuracy, the taste for controversy and the business realities of requiring eyeballs converge, the best thing to do is to intersect factual reporting – the run-downs of press releases that so many disdain – with editorial analysis. One example of this would be my work regarding Sony’s boasting of Move sales around the holidays, where I reported what was being said, debunked it, and called out people that got it wrong. Some don’t like that – they just want the facts – but this seems to be the best way that I’ve noticed so far to separate the facts that public relations people want the press to have and the actual facts that are out there for people that simply do some leg work. Ironically, that means that arguably the best example of modern day gaming journalism at a big site is that of Destructoid’s Jim Sterling, who has vehemently stated on numerous occasions that he is not a journalist under any circumstance.

There are still tenets to proper journalism that apply to the games industry. Make sure to double source whenever humanly possible. Call people to verify and get their comments, even if you’re sure they’ll blow you off. Don’t pass off rumour and speculation as news. These things should be the staples for anyone writing about video games, whether they’re doing news, features or reviews; they all revolve around the ideals of honesty and building a three way trust between the writer, the companies they write about, and their readers. But the longer I’ve been around the industry, the more I think that the ideal of classic “journalism” is an unrealistic one, if not an archaic and irrelevant one. We can still do the job that people want and expect us to do, we just have to find a different way of doing it while hoping our readers understand the pitfalls that come with reporting on such tightly reined companies who hold almost all of the power.

POSTSCRIPT: Since this article was written, there has been some controversy over the IGN review of Dead Space 2. I have been very rough on his work in the past, and I stand by those criticisms, especially in light of recent events. However, I’d also be interested to see just how much editing his work goes through. Jeff Gerstmann’s incident forever destroyed our innocence in just how much marketing affects content, and we’d be naive to assume the same thing doesn’t happen at IGN or any other corporate owned site or magazine. I’m not saying Greg’s work isn’t terrible. It’s a gong show, and it has been for a long time. However, I’d be interested to see just how much of this terrible work really is Greg’s, and how much was added after the fact by others.



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One response to “Unbranding the Sheep: The Perils Of What We Call “Journalism””

  1. Phil Avatar

    I have recognized the inflated reviewing process for quite a while now from some of these websites. It doesn’t really deter me from visiting or giving a “hit” to the article. But just because I click on a link doesn’t mean that I actually read the article thoroughly, or take the score given at face value. Looking at reviews is kind of a natural byproduct of visiting the site for up-to-date news and events.

    This is in stark contrast to buying early editions of EGM (1989-1993) and the most anticipated part when paging through the magazine would be the paragraph reviews with scores near the front-end. Big-business didn’t wield as much influence back then and the reviewers were communicating to a much more concentrated consumer base, so you could base potential purchasing decisions off of their reviews to at least some degree; at least it was a factor combined with game genre and publisher and developer reputation.

    Not now, most reviews have zero impact on whether I become interested in making a purchase, and I guess the inflated scores do not affect me very much regardless, since I am disconnected from the present console generation and that is where the primary pressure to give glorifying scores and written reviews seems to be focused.

    I prefer Gamefan (The Website) for their no-nonsense/no-bluster reviews and Gametrailers because I can be lazy and like watching the videos. Keep up the good journalism.

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