On journalistic ethics in gaming

If you haven’t read this post, please do so first. Thanks!

Journalistic ethics in the video games press… That is one tough nut to crack.

Short version: There isn’t more of an issue today than there has been since video games were invented. Actually, there is probably less of an issue than there has ever been, for a number of historical reasons I won’t get into here. Issues in video game journalism exist, but no more than in other similar large industries. Also, they are discussed (and addressed) as they appear, usually by the gaming journalists community itself, which is important. Nobody is blind or hiding some kind of wide epidemic or conspiracy in that field. Thanks for reading!

Long version:

First, let me say this: if you think it’s a simple issue (“just be independent, damnit!”) then you are suffering from a serious lack of understanding of the mechanics of entertainment media, the economics of the web, and the curse of the human condition of “needing to eat to stay alive in order be able to keep creating media”. Also, while the core of the issue of ethics can be discussed and is important, it certainly doesn’t revolve around the media’s relationship with tiny indie developers or individuals’ support of crowd funded projects. So if we really want to discuss ethics in game journalism, let’s do that.

First, let’s look at three basic elements:

  • The core issue in all journalism is indeed about being independent. About being able to write what you really think.
  • The main impediment to independence in journalism is your subject matter pressuring you to alter your reporting.
  • Creating media, like any other enterprise, costs money. And to get money, we have two options:
    • Get customers to pay
    • Advertising
    • That’s it. There isn’t a magical third bullet.

So how do you get money to pay for people to code a web page and people to write reviews? Readers are usually not willing to pay for news anymore. And it’s not for lack or trying on the publications’ part; online magazines have tried to institute premium memberships and other such systems for years, and have usually fallen flat on their faces. In most cases, people just don’t want to pay for their information and that’s that, unfortunately.

So advertising, which was already part of the equation when people where buying paper magazines before the Internet existed (and still is for those magazines that still sell), has become even more prominent. Ad revenue is now the business model of the Internet, and represents all or almost all of the revenue of most magazines I know.

At this point, I’d like to point out that the use of ad-block software has sky-rocketed in the past few years, denying online publications of a large part of the only source of revenue they have left (I’ve seen sites, particularly tech and gaming-centric sites, get as high as 40% of visitors using ad-block software). This is an impossible solution. Without judging those who use those tools, I’d say two things: first, it is at least a little outrageous to be refusing to pay for content and then to also be actively denying the site their ad revenue. And second, I’d encourage anyone who claims journalists of being corrupt to make sure they turn off their ad-block software before doing so, in order to at least appear justified when climbing to their moral high ground.

Ok, so advertising is the way to go. Great! Ads are awesome: they inconvenience the readers a bit, but they allow them to also get the product for free, so why not.

Now of course, when you have announcers, you are also somewhat beholden to their continued patronage.

In news reporting, the issue is a bit more diffuse: your subject matter is the news, and the news can’t really tell you what to write. Of course there are indirect pressures that can occur (political access, corporate agendas, etc), but by and large, advertising is more diverse and isolated from editorial in the news industry than it is in the entertainment industry.

The issue in entertainment (of which gaming is a subset) is that you’re reporting directly on the products who’s companies want to advertise to your readers. And arguably, if you write something that displeases your advertiser, they can take away part of your revenue. That makes the publication subject to pressure. Quite simple.

To make matters worse, readers love early and exclusive information, and journalists need the game publishers in order to provide that information to their readers. It’s not like they aren’t trying to write deep, investigative pieces (which are awesome), but generally speaking, it’s the juicy stuff that brings in the clicks, and thus the money. Some people claim journalists should just cut themselves off from that early access type of reporting, in order to achieve true independence. But given how popular this is (a lot), this basically asking them to abandon a large part of their revenue. Which, in the context of readers also refusing to pay directly *and* often using ad-block as well, is, to say the least, a bit frustrating.

So what’s the solution?

Now wait a second: I never said there was a problem…

I understand;that given all this, it’s easy to conclude that entertainment journalists are beholden to the publishers’ will, if you are so inclined. And I guess it’s fair to say they’re not 100% independent, sure. But journalists and editors are also not scared children, and a complicated situation doesn’t mean there can’t be a reasonable balance.

Meaning: even with these challenges, the system is mostly working, through a solid status quo:

  • There is a reasonable separation of editorial and marketing in most of those media.
  • There is an industry standard on a rating system that makes everyone happy (including the readers, who understand what a 70% rating means).
  • There is a reasonable knowledge that journalists often don’t pay for the games they review, and get invited by developers to see products early.
  • There is a cordial understanding that if publishers mess with the media, they can expose the abuse to the public (which, contrary to what some people would have you believe, still holds weight). This might be the most important thing: the media do hold power in the relationship.
  • In that same vein, the media does have their readership to put in the balance: the announcers do want to reach these readers, who are beautifully targeted as their exact audience, and often can’t afford to cut themselves off from them. Or at least not for long periods of time.

And all of this is fairly transparent. Maybe it could be more transparent, but it isn’t being obfuscated. Are there are scandals about unsavory practices that shouldn’t happen? Of course; what industry could reasonably claim it harbors no such problems. In our industry, the Doritos Gate and multiple YouTuber issues (which are a honestly a different beast that would require an entire article of its own by the way) are examples of that. But these do turn into what they should: scandals. Which signals to me there is a good amount of ethics in at least parts of the industry.

And we shouldn’t forget: journalists are also very aware of these potential conflicts of interest, and are also trying to give readers what they want. Why? Well, honesty and integrity for one, which journalists and editors are a lot more concerned with than people give them credit for. But also, we live at the age of the internet. If they don’t give the readers what they want, the readers will go elsewhere. Everything is available for free, remember? So if journalists were all of a sudden starting to write glowing reviews of crappy games all the time, it’s not like readers wouldn’t notice. Sure, you can disagree with this or that review, but I don’t think people are claiming reviews are being “bought” on a wide scale for example. Which is what matters in the end.

So, conclusion:

Do I think there are challenges? Sure. Do I think it’s due to the nature of this industry, media and readers included? Yup. Do I believe there could and should be more transparency in the business? Yeah, that certainly wouldn’t hurt. But do I think journalists are puppets doing the big publishers’ bidding and hold no power in that relationship, all the while purposefully hiding their misdeeds to the public? Well, if that’s what you think, I think you should start a video game blog and fix it.

Personally, I think there’s a ton of great, honest and thoughtful reporting and analysis happening out there. More than there has ever been actually. I think video game journalism could be improved, as could most things, but I also think it has a ton of different, interesting, intelligent voices in a ton of different formats, and it’s probably in better shape than it’s ever been.

October 30th, 2014