The Death of Games Journalism Part 1: Journalism 101
Part One of A multi-part series, visit the parts index
Games Journalism is dead. Or at least games journalism in its current form is dead. From my perspective, there is no growth left in the “traditional” model of games writing. But the question is “Who killed Games Journalism?” And the answer is simple: Games Journalists, or at least the people trading on unearned journalistic credentials. I’m going to quote myself from my introductory piece for this site because I feel it’s important to know where I am coming from:
“I am not a journalist. I hold no journalism degree or credentials. I would feel inept breaking a large story of real consequence because of this fact. But I believe that as ‘just a blogger’ you have to have a set of standards and let an audience know where you are coming from.
For instance I would never exaggerate or knowingly put false or misleading information into any of my writing, even to ‘make a point’. I want people to understand my point and persuade them to share my beliefs, but not at the cost of those beliefs.”
The Blogger/Journalist dilemma is one that has plagued recent controversies in games media and is at the heart of the identity crisis of the medium. It’s become almost a joke, with people adopting whatever title suites them best at any given moment. You see writers for Kotuku and Polygon saying “We don’t strive for objectivity” or “We are bias.” You see Leigh Alexander say, “I have an agenda” and revel in the fact that all of her writing stems from that. After enough examples of this you begin to see the degeneration of the medium. You can’t disavow integrity, standards, objectivity of method and ethics and still expect to be considered a journalist. If you say “Fuck you! I’m just going to talk about my ideology and my personal gripes” then well done: you just talked yourself out of being a journalist. You can blog about whatever you feel like, go nuts, no one is trying to silence you. But the word “journalist” comes with expectations.
I’ll say it once again: I am not a journalist. I have not earned that. I would never expect the level of access a journalist gets.
It all comes down to one thing: access. When you say “I work for a major gaming news and review outlet,” that gives you certain perks. Perks that come in exchange for being a journalist. GDC, PAX, TGS and especially E3 all have heavy advantages for people who are journalists. If a publisher considers you to have journalistic credentials then you have earlier previews, earlier reviews, developer access, interview access, convention passes, swag upon sway, and review copies. The list goes on. But it is a give and take. If you talk down your journalistic integrity then don’t be surprised when the publishers take your toys away from you. When E3 rolls around, these people play serious journalist, but when they get caught covering their friends suddenly it’s just a blog.
Patreon is not a publication. If you write about games and you don’t hold yourself to a set of journalistic standards, or are not even attached to a publication then a publisher or developer will have to evaluate you on audience. And there is a big que of people before you in terms of raw numbers. It’s an open secret (and an issue I am going to close out this series with) that the traditional games media gets absolutely curb-stomped by even mid-sized gaming streamers and Youtubers. If we are just in a war for clicks then you as an individual journalist are at a massive disadvantage.
Do you think IGN would get as many clicks if it didn’t have “exclusive previews” of games? The thing that sets most gaming publications apart from their competitors is getting news first. It’s all about being first to the story and that can be a detriment. The race to be first is old news, the race to make people angry seems to be the new trend. What is really rotting away games writing is clickbait. Not just “Top 10 Ways to Insert your Controller in Yourself” fluff bullshit, I’m taking about manufactured controversy. Gawker media is at the front of the charge in this. I’ve taken to calling parts of the gaming/tech/nerd press “The Gawkerazzi” because of their similar MO. Clickbait is short-sighted and it does not breed loyalty. This has some overlap with what I will say in the next piece about the business side of games writing, but you don’t foster a hardcore fan base with clickbait. It simply lures passing casual browsers.
What this really comes down to is hard reality. Here are two things that should make anyone who has said “Objectivity isn’t something to strive for” evaporate in shame: The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics and the Greg Lisby interview. This really is Journalism 101: a journalistic ethics professor and as close as we have to a universal code of ethics.
“Seek Truth and Report It: Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.” –SPJ code of ethics.
This isn’t an exclusively GamerGate piece, the issues here are bigger than GamerGate. Some of the most blatant examples of these rules being ignored has been the coverage of issues related to gaming and sexism. In my piece for Word of the Nerd Online I outline not only how inept this coverage has been, but how it’s sometimes full of flagrant lies that can be disproven with the slightest effort. Even the mainstream coverage has latched onto and amplified these lies. When you stop upholding and seeking the truth you stop being a journalist. This is why I feel I can say Games Journalism is dead: because almost no mainstream publication seems interested in the truth. Moreover they seem to want to bury it for their own gain.
Fairness is an area that seems to have no thought or effort put into it. “Bias is good” is not something a journalist should ever say, even when talking about an opinion piece. What they mean is “Subjectivity.” Here is the dictionary definition of bias:
“Bias: Inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group, especially in a way considered to be unfair”
For Contrast here is the dictionary definition of Subjectivity:
Subjectivity refers to how someone’s judgment is shaped by personal opinions and feelings instead of outside influences. Subjectivity is partially responsible for why one person loves an abstract painting while another person hates it.”
So what they are saying is that they expect work to show clear and unfair prejudice against an idea or person. Subjectivity, a well backed up different viewpoint is fine, that is an opinion based on your own personal feelings, you can’t mitigate all of your personal factors but you can at least try not to skew your work. A Bias opinion is still something that should not be tolerated, because by definition bias is “Unfair.” So when a journalist starts waxing lyrical about how bias is not a bad thing, maybe they should look up the meaning of the word first. This piece is subjective, it is an editorial, but I don’t have any financial or personal reason to be writing this. I don’t get paid, I do it for free. This is my opinion, but I don’t feel I have any factors unfairly skewing that opinion.
“Act Independently: The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.” –SPJ code of ethics.
This is probably going to come up as a trope in this series. Games Journalism is about serving people interested in videogames. It sounds so simple, but attitudes have drifted away from this goal. Consumer advice. Furthering understanding. This is the main aim of games journalism. If you are not offering good consumer advice or interesting analysis then what are you doing writing about videogames? What are you doing calling yourself a journalist?
“Be Accountable and Transparent: Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public. Journalists should Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.” –SPJ code of ethics.
You serve your readers, you are accountable to them. If you don’t act without bias or are working on behalf on an interest, be that political or financial, you act against your readers. Doubling down and insulting those who try and hold you to account is doubling down on violating your journalistic ethics and integrity. You stop being a journalist when this line is crossed.
The Greg Lisby interview just helps to underline this; here we have the issues laid out clear as day by a professor of journalistic ethics no less. You can’t be a journalist and expect to get away with violating basic journalistic practices. I know I keep repeating myself on this point but this is the real crux of the issue. I could site examples all day, and I will certainly refer back to the SPJ code in the parts to come, but I think for the moment this underlines how they fail to live up to their title.
You want a subjective, even dare I say bias, opinion? Here’s one: I wouldn’t wipe my arse with the current crop of videogame journalists. They are inept, petty, ideologically blinkered and beyond corrupt. They are less than useless. If you can’t uphold the basic professional requirements of being a journalist then you simply aren’t one. Stuffing feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken. Just writing regurgitated news and bias editorials does not make you a journalist. You have to earn it. You could probably train a smart sheepdog to write up the series of PR releases that is modern gaming news. What elevates you is what you do when the time comes to step up to the plate; to break a story or not wither in the face of a controversial issue. As the rest of this series will show, this is a task the vast majority of the press have failed in almost every case.
Every time I sit down to write about this I try to be cold and analytical but as you look at the facts you can’t help but think; “Holy Christ, these are the people who have been entrusted to cover a growing multi-billion dollar industry?!” When you have former Neo-Nazi, disgraced former Reddit moderator and Gameranx owner Ian Miles Cheong saying things like: “Ethics in Game Journalism? It’s fucking Game Journalism. Who gives a flying fuck? Holy Shit” and the rest of the games media/industry does not back away from him at the speed of sound then we have a massive problem. (Author’s note 27/04/2016: Ian Miles Cheong has since changed his stance on these issues and even gave an apology for some of his former statements in an interview with SuperNerdLand)
It’s basic. It’s so basic that the things they get wrong don’t even require deep analysis at times. Professionalism on social media is lacking, there is so much confusion about how and when you should recuse yourself from a story, there is seemingly complete contempt about the practice of limiting bias. This stems from the aforementioned lack of training and I think an unearned sense of arrogance and entitlement.
Here’s a depressing exercise for you: name ten people working in videogame journalism today that both have a journalistic degree (or relevant equivalent) and could be said to uphold the SJP code of ethics. Steven Totillo, EiC of Kotaku, has a Masters in Journalism but he seems to have no problem printing unverified, fake, even libelous content and has expressed complete contempt for the idea of trying to reject bias and clear up personal conflicts of interest. Erik Cain is a man who I think upholds the ethical side of journalism very well, but he has no formal journalism training. The only person who I could say with some certainty has upheld both would be Alistair Pinsof. He pretty much got run out of town by his fellow journalists and is now even more of a pariah for repeatedly blowing the whistle on instances of alleged impropriety. He is no longer a game journalist and as one of the few to come into the field from outside with a real degree, that’s saddening. The environment seems actively hostile to journalists and actual journalistic work. For the record I think Pinsof did the right thing in the Chloe Segal case; outing her trans status was an integral part of exposing her fraud. It’s a sad indictment of Destructoid they put sensitivity before exposing a blatant case of misappropriating funds. But hey, as the owner of Destructoid said “Nowhere On My Site Does It Say We Are Journalists.” I suppose all those press passes were handed out in error then?
So we find ourselves in a position where most of those who cover games could not be described as “journalists” with a straight face. Maybe the problem was that Game Journalism never really existed in the first place. But then why did people self-label as journalists? Well apart from working to seem more qualified and important than they are. How can we have a gaming press without qualified and professional journalists? I think the answer is we can’t and we don’t.
I may not be a game journalist.
But neither are they.
Continued in Part 2: Business 101
Visit the the Parts Index
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