You’re probably coming into this column being fully aware of the PR versus ‘Games Journalism’ debate that has been rearing its ugly head in what many refer to as The Mountain Dew and Doritos Scandal, or Doritosgate if you prefer simplicity. What happened in Doritosgate, is symptomatic of issues that games journalism at its very foundation, which wasn’t that sturdy to begin with as is traditional journalism, itself is troubled. In the most traditional sense of ‘journalism’ one needs to understand that ‘objectivity’ was a keyword in the early days of journalism, when reporters hammered out copy in smoke covered hellholes known as press offices. In the early days, the concerns of writing articles were inundated with ethical practices such as double-checking your information sources, making sure that your ‘version’ of the truth was supported by fact and not fiction, and protecting your sources from possible threats. Journalists were meant to be gatekeepers to ‘truth’ as abstract as it sounds, and this tradition has heavily impacted what many now consider to be “games journalism”.
These traditional journalistic ideals have since proven to be a failure in the long run. Many major publications across the world have had to deal with the ethical onslaught of incorrect information being published and apologising for inaccurate stories that have caused character defamation, and lead to a long line of angry people ready to sue the asses off misguided journalists. However, the truth of the matter is that objectivity in journalism, and by extension, games journalism, is a fallacy. Objectivity in relation to journalism is equated with neutrality in the reporting of news, and writing news pieces which are primarily concerned with fairness, factuality and a disinterest in allowing outside forces influencing how a news story is printed, and represents the ‘truth’. What we can see now is that objectivity was one of the supposed ethics of journalism, along with fact checking and being unbiased in reporting the ‘truth’, which we can now look back and see is null, and void as a reality of real world news situations.
No journalist can totally remove their opinion and bias from the copy they produce in a news article. This is an idealist’s dream and games journalism is no different. Just as modern journalism has become steeped in the computer and internet age, and journalists rarely venture far from their desk instead they rely on press releases as their main source of information, and rehash them into articles. One needs to accept that games journalism has experienced the same conditions, which have made it thrive as an overall development online, which means that it is rarely plausible to expect any piece of games journalism to be impartial and objective.
By extension, I feel that labelling ‘Games Journalism’ as a type of journalism is problematic and riddled with issues. Most game journalists, and of course this is generalising here, are not in any way journalists or express to be so. Even the traditional print and television journalists who proclaim themselves to be hard news journalists are nothing more than vacuous PR entities that punt political agendas, and take influence from corporate sponsors. Just as Edward R. Murrow, the preeminent American TV journalist during the 1950s, proclaimed television journalism to be a dead horse which caved into corporate advertising and pandered to consumerism, so too is modern journalism and games journalism. Both modern journalism and games journalism are slowly turning into glorified PR machines. Murrow in a 1958 speech addressed the state of network television and prime time news, and said:
Our history will be what we make it. And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. I invite your attention to the television schedules of all networks between the hours of 8 and 11 p.m., Eastern Time. Here you will find only fleeting and spasmodic reference to the fact that this nation is in mortal danger. There are, it is true, occasional informative programs presented in that intellectual ghetto on Sunday afternoons. But during the daily peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live. If this state of affairs continues, we may alter an advertising slogan to read: LOOK NOW, PAY LATER.
Murrow’s speech may have happened during the rise of network news television in America, but it resonates with so many forms of media and press coverage. The relationship between corporations and news entities is not old news. It is still relevant today, as demonstrated in what happened during Doritosgate. Doritosgate is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to games journalism.
The point is that games journalists are writers and critics who happen to have a passion that centres on gaming and is duly expressed in their articles and the publications they write for. Most of the articles you see on gaming websites aren’t fact checked or based on traditional news sources, as dictated by the standards and ethics of journalism. Gaming websites don’t have in-the-field reporters scouting out sources and getting to the ‘truth’. Nearly all of what could be called field reporting only happens in the instances of expos and press events.
I won’t deny that writers cannot be ‘press, but labelling them as journalists further complicates matters, as mentioned above. To be honest, I find the term journalist to be of its own a problematic term and for gaming to take it on as a demarcation of the people writing about issues involving gaming, it is confounding. The individuals who write about games and news surrounding them are made of opinions and subjective viewpoints that counter one another from time to time. They are also subject to the allure of PR offerings from publishers which in some cases may reflect influence in review scores of some gaming websites. Yet this is not true for all gaming websites, and making an issue of when gaming websites take advantage of PR perks in lowering the cost of expenses, for example, comes across as an unflinchingly stupid act. The hypocrisy in the industry is most apparent when it comes to talking about issues such as this.
As such, to label writing about games as “games journalism’ is a failure to understand that journalism as a concept is fallible and a ethical nightmare of hypocrisy. I am not arguing that writers should not be impartial and fair in the assessment of games, and in the articles they write up. However, we shouldn’t be quick to judge said writers in terms of traditional journalistic expectations which apply to an industry inadequately. Games journalism is a confounding concept, and games journalists are only human.