[Op-Ed] On "A Price of Games Journalism"

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[Op-Ed] On "A Price of Games Journalism"

Postby BiomedAlchemist » Tue Dec 08, 2015 10:30 am

Note: The title of this op-ed has been altered from its initial title this morning to reflect that of the Kotaku editorial to which it is a response.

After The Rival Cast's episode 129 discussion on Kotaku's blacklisting by Ubisoft and Bethesda, I decided it's about time to finally get back to writing. If you've not listened to the episode, I recommend checking it out. Both arguments were interesting, but towards the end, I think both sides had some gaps I intend to fill. It was my intention to post this last week, but the holidays meant time was not adequate to work on a well-reasoned argument for both sides.

Before we continue, be aware that I have a bias against the current state of many games journalism sites. I'm not alone in this, and in a September 21, 2015 board meeting of the Society of Professional Journalists, Region 3 director Mike Koretzky described the state of video games journalism (after talking to both the journalists and their detractors) as currently being in a state similar to where music journalism was in the 60s. Quite frankly, I think an industry that gaming market research organization Newzoo projects will make 91.5 billion USD in worldwide revenue by the end of this year deserves better.

What's the problem?

The problem is that Kotaku editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo defended the leaking of proprietary information on the early development of Assassin's Creed games and Fallout 4 as if they were noble acts of journalism they have suffered for over the past 2 years. This was published coincidentally within days of its parent company firing 7 employees across its multiple blogs and announcing a restructuring of the company. In my mind, telling the public that a new game is being developed long before said company was ready is also telling their competitors that it's being developed, potentially giving their competitions' marketing strategists information. This resembles industrial espionage more than it does journalism, even if it's information gamers would be interested in knowing. It boils down to: When is a leak relevant news vs. an act of self-interest?

In a democratic society, it is undeniable that leaks are important when its government is not being transparent enough to the public on matters that could impact their lives. Examples could be funds being misappropriated to dead-end projects, government appointments being sold to the highest bidder instead of to a qualified individual, or agencies caught being ineffective or negligent in their duties. It's also relevant to leak when a company is involved in wrongdoings such as insider trading, poor quality products, or bad working conditions. Even with this, the Society of Professional Journalism's code of ethics recommends that journalists "Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public." They also recommend that journalists "balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness." In terms of reporting a new Assassin's Creed or Fallout game's plot details so early in the development process, the primary benefit is ad revenue generated by websites that act in this manner - in this case, Gawker Media.

But reporting hot news does not necessarily equate as good journalism. Sure, gamers were glad to hear about the new title and possibly salivated over every detail, but there was not a compelling reason for gamers to know at that time a new game was in early stages of development. A more ethical example of reporting a leak would be the alleged internal problems brewing during the development of one of the biggest Kickstarter funded games to date, claims of terrible work conditions at a development studio, or the deteriorating relationship behind-the-scenes between Konami and Hideo Kojima amidst the upcoming release of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain - with proper labeling of rumors without evidence vs. statements backed by evidence. But it seems bizarre to claim leaking the news of a game's early development prior to its announcement is an example of raging against the "PR Machine." If anything, it's actually just starting the machine earlier than those in charge of it desired. It didn't hold Bethesda or Ubisoft accountable for anything anti-consumer or shady. It wasn't an act of journalism, but an act of self-promotion and profiteering by Kotaku. They may not be guilty of industrial espionage, but to paraphrase Ian Malcolm from the film Jurassic Park, they were "so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."

To Kotaku's credit, they have performed real acts of journalism in the past and should be applauded for it when they do. When editor Jason Schreier is not acting like a tool on social media or the industry forum NeoGAF, he can do some good reporting. Stephen Totilo isn't a bad writer at all so long as he's not being tricked into believing a black woman learned to drive in GTA. But when you publish that alongside clickbait articles such as these gems, it becomes rather difficult to take them seriously as a legitimate games journalism outlet, which seems to demonstrate either a flaw in Totilo's leadership or a flaw in founder Nick Denton's vision for the website. And that's exactly what started to happen amidst the inevitable social media fallout, where several developers spoke out against ways in which Kotaku had misrepresented them or otherwise took advantage of them to post outrageously false click-bait headlines. It may not be exactly mature, but can you really blame them for not wanting to talk to an organization that seems to encourage its writers to act like the Rita Skeeter of the tech/gaming industries?

Let me be clear on this: I'm against blacklisting over negative reviews or "inconvenient" news pieces, as is the case with what happened to Electronic Gaming Monthly in 2008, nor do I condone that games journalism should merely be a cog in the machine run by publishers and their PR firms. That said, I completely understand why these companies chose to do it, as humorously explained by a Penny Arcade comic in reference to Totilo's editorial. Kotaku acted irresponsibly, as have other Gawker Media-owned blogs in the past, and the publishers chose to react with a cold-shoulder. That's certainly nicer than Apple's reaction of having the police kick down the door and confiscate their prototype iPhone 4 from a Gizmodo writer's apartment or Quenton Tarantino deciding for several months that he was not to make his movie after its script was leaked by someone to Gawker. These were not prices of good journalism, but reactions to poor integrity, and we aren't going to fix this problem until we admit there are people in the games press, the parent corporations of these so-called journalist websites, and even the games industry itself that are dragging games journalism into the mud.

You know the quality of journalism in the gaming industry needs to improve when:

  • A Polygon reviewer attended a Guitar Hero 4 PR event and instead rambled on about how he'd rather discuss politics in the Philippines towards the back of the venue than actually try out the game he was invited to demo, making a remark in the article that all video games, the product of an industry he is tasked with covering, are stupid.
  • A former Rock, Paper, Shotgun writer who now works for Kotaku publicly flirted for years with a female indie developer - with whom he eventually had an affair with - on social media, going so far as to say he would "burn down the gaming industry" for her while positively covering her work, calling it a "Twine Darling," and citing her in his articles. All of this occurred without disclosing his relationship, which should be disclosed in as little detail as possible as a potential bias. The knee-jerk reaction to the revelation and angry backlash was to remove a majority of the discussion at larger gaming-oriented communities and accuse gamers of being misogynists who wanted to chase women out of the industry and the "gaming community" at large.
  • It took an act of the FTC to get "influencers" such as IGN website reviewers or YouTube content producers to start properly disclosing relationships or paid advertising involving the products they're promoting.
  • When at least ten different writers across nine different outlets that cover gaming/tech posted articles criticizing the "gamer identity" on the same day - albeit with some justified criticism of online outrage, and a secret Google group called "GameJournoPros" was coincidentally revealed a few weeks later that raised suspicion there could have been some planning or collusion between writers for this and other game/tech-related websites.
    Ars Technica - Buzzfeed - The Daily Beast - Destructoid - Financial Post - Gamasutra - Gamasutra User Blog - Kotaku - Polygon - Vice
  • When former Eurogamer journalist Robert Florence quit his job due to legal pressure aimed at the organization regarding his piece criticizing the shortcomings of game journalism that directly sourced behavior from another journalist.

But it's just games journalism, Bio!

Unfortunately, it's not just games journalism. Kotaku's parent corporation, Gawker Media, has set up blogs over the years for many industries/niches. From Gizmodo (gadgets/technology), Deadspin (sports), io9 (science/sci-fi), Jezebel (celebrity, sex, and fashion for women), and Valleywag (Silicon Valley gossip, alleged by a former editorial director as an attempt by the company's CEO to have leverage over Silicon Valley companies). By the way, it earned 45 million USD in revenue last year (6.7 million in profit). They're not the biggest fish in the games journalism sea, though, as the parent corporation for IGN, j2 Global, reported 178.7 million USD in revenue last quarter across all its businesses. Despite this gap in profit between larger corporations or AAA publishers (Ubisoft alone estimates 1.464 billion Euros in sales for 2014-2015), it's a complete underestimation of the corporate media machine to assume Kotaku is the poor little blog getting badgered by the big, bad corporations. When someone is tasked to "Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless." as SPJ describes in their code of ethics, they should realize that when they're a part of a multi-million dollar enterprise themselves, they should also be held accountable in their own right. Here's a clickbait article title for you: Look into the ownership of your favorite news outlet: Its owner may shock you!

The 24-hour news cycle's pressure to report first is even causing problems in mainstream media. Networks such as CBS, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC this past Friday were allowed entry into the apartment of the recent perpetrators of an attack in San Bernardino by their former landlord. Although the FBI had turned over the scene, local police claimed they were not ready to release the scene, and journalists were eventually shooed out and the plywood over the front door was reinstalled. While some reporters chose to only stick to wide-pan shots of the rooms, others chose to focus on various pictures, looked through drawers, go through their child's belongings, and MSNBC's field reporter even held up the driver's license and social security card of who was eventually discovered to be the male shooter's mother - a violation of California Civil Code Section 1798. There's an interesting debate on whether entering the home was ethical. A writer at the Poynter Institute says it was ethical to enter the room, but not to broadcast it live. The SPJ's stance on the coverage was that “Journalists should feel free to investigate stories when and where possible. They need to minimize harm in their reporting, however. Walking into a building and live broadcasting the pictures, addresses and other identifying information of children or other people who may have no involvement in the story does not represent best and ethical practices.” A CNN law enforcement expert watched on-air in shock as journalists combed through a crime scene, unsure of whether all law enforcement agencies involved had signed off on releasing it, and several media outlets are now condemning the decision by journalists to enter the apartment during a live feed, or even entering it at all. LA Weekly cites California Civil Code Section 1954 saying it was not even the landlord's place to allow them into the apartment, resulting in everyone being removed from the apartment and the plywood over its front door re-secured.

In a similar fashion, The Associated Press, New York Times, and CNN were tricked by a troll during the manhunt for the shooters who claimed the shooter said he was doing it "for necessary ethics" and wore a shirt with "GG" on it (referring to the GamerGate "movement"). They even put said hoaxer on the air with Anderson Cooper.

Clearly, the rush to be first is causing irresponsible journalism and unethical practices, which MSNBC acknowledged later the same day.

So what can be done about this in games journalism?

Personally, I find Mike Koretzy's idea intriguing. If video games are truly becoming a mainstream form of art and entertainment, then games journalists should strive for a higher degree of excellence. As such, he has been granted permission by the SPJ to set up a trial run for a set of video game journalism awards named after Bill Kunkel, who was described by the New York Times as helping invent video game journalism. I consider this a constructive step, because these awards would stand alongside the Sigma Delta Chi Awards (honoring the best in print, radio, television, etc.), the New America Award (honoring public service journalism involving immigration or ethnic communities), and even the Sunshine AWard (honoring contributions to journalists who push for open government). Most importantly: the judges will be SPJ journalists who are not part of the video game industry at all and care a great deal for making journalism better. Where other awards in gaming are laughable or controversial due either the judging process or the ceremonies themselves being advertisements (Do they know they're an ad?!), this is a chance for video gaming - and their journalists - to prove what their cultural relevance to the mainstream. This should be something every games journalism outlet wants to display proudly, just like a publisher or studio would want to publish "[News Outlet] Game of the Year 2015" on the description of their game. But they're going to have to earn it by following SPJ's standards.

Despite my cynicism during most of this op-ed, I'm optimistic that it can improve. But there will be resistance. There will be those who think they are journalists simply because they receive a press pass to a convention or because they leaked a game's plot before it could even be announced. They'll say journalism is evolving beyond the need for different categories like news and editorials, op-eds, or columns because "truth is subjective" or "objectivity is impossible." They'll call you a whiny, entitled "gamer" for disagreeing with their political views injected into everything they write. They'll tell you that you don't understand how the industry works, and in some ways they're right. But if gaming is truly becoming mainstream, games journalism needs to adapt. We can't afford to push for reporting that misses its mark, falsely accuses industry players of crimes, or works to actively promote antagonism or nepotism within its target industry in the name of clicks from its target audience or a continued status within social circles.

It's also going to require each and every one of us to be more cautious about the media outlets and "influencers" we trust. Whether or not you agree with someone's opinion in a column/article/review, look at their possible motives and how they present their case. Did they give an honest effort to consider multiple sides when they reported on it? If it's controversial, did they report it for the public's interest or to push an agenda? Sometimes you're just not going to agree, and that's actually a great thing, but there's a difference between a different perspective on the facts and pushing a pre-conceived narrative. There's more to real journalism than just striking while the iron's hot on a leak. Journalists are not a one-dimensional stereotype that reports everything that lands in their lap. They must take all factors into account on whether reporting on it is ethical and then do so with verifiable facts, swinging to opinion mainly when the segment or article is labelled as an editorial, op-ed, or column. Who benefited from Kotaku leaking Fallout 4 so early? The gaming industry and its consumers at large or Kotaku and its parent corporation, Gawker Media? I would argue for the latter.

So what is the price of journalism? A price for poor journalism is when industry players no longer want to interact with you due to a trend of irresponsible behavior at their expense. The price of good, ethical journalism is not pulling the trigger on something even though you want to, because a responsible editor decides that this sort of information is best disseminated from proper channels rather than reporting a product's existence and details from anonymous sources like a tabloid. It's admitting when you're wrong instead of doubling down and name-calling your readers because they didn't like your opinions and reacted negatively. It's being the bad guy sometimes when industry players need to be held accountable for wrongdoing both towards the consumer as well as the industry itself, rather than whining that someone has finally called you out after years of bad behavior defended as "sticking it to people in power." There are people out there doing it, even from Kotaku at times, and they manage to do it without resorting to unsavory practices. REAL journalism.

And that's the journalism we deserve.

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