I was really excited about my first post here, so much so that I posted it over on the other site that I write for (www.pnosker.com) about a day or two before it went live here. The two posts weren’t exactly the same though, there was a one word difference that you probably wouldn’t have noticed even if you read both versions of the article. In the pnosker.com version of the article I refer to myself as a part time journalist, whereas in the one published here I only refer to myself as a part time writer (the same thing the pnosker.com article should have said). Normally the discovery of this editing mistake would simply warrant a facepalm on my part due to lack of thoroughness. However, it became doubly so when one of the commenters challenged me on my self-characterization, stating “you, are you are journalist?. what education do you have?” This intrigued me, not just because it challenged me as a journalist, but also because it goes hand in hand with an ongoing debate about what gives someone the right to call themselves a game journalist. A bunch of people have explored the matter without coming to much of a conclusion, and today I hope to shed some light on why that consensus is so difficult to reach.
At the heart of the matter is the fact that, in the traditional sense, video game journalists don’t do much investigative work. Think about the traditional view of a journalist putting together a story. He or she gets word of an event and heads out to see what is happening. Sometimes the author gets there in time to see the actual event take place, in which case he or she can give a firsthand account of what occurred. Usually though, the journalist is late to the scene and needs to conduct interviews, cross references stories, and check background facts in order to put together an unbiased account of what happened. In essence, the practice of journalism is an exercise in piecing together a story in which the actual facts of the matter aren’t easily discerned.
Given this model, there are scarcely any instances in which games journalists are actually classic journalists at all. Do they report news? Most certainly. Do they ensure that the facts of this story of this correct? If they are good news writers they do. However, the essential difference is that rarely do video game journalists cover events, instead they are focused on news about reporting about products. The change of subject matter alters the playing field entirely because when reporting about products two facts are true. For one the day to day machinations of development are incredibly boring, something which you know to be true if you’ve ever read a development blog. Seriously though, what is an insider source going to come out and tell you? “We finished some sweet vector shading today”, who the hell cares about that? Secondly, when covering products, news about upcoming releases is limited to one source: the company’s PR team. Sure, you might have sources within the company itself who are willing to drop the occasional anonymous tidbit about an upcoming product, but even that is rare judging by how sparse such leaks are.
This single source mentality profoundly effects how news is reported in the video game industry because it ensures that all the information released is both carefully controlled and the extent of what is known at the time. Sure, an outlet might get an exclusive preview, but even then, the developers have complete control over what levels and mechanics the writers see. This means that all writers need to do to get a factual story is look at other websites, double check the facts with the appropriate people (something some publications still fail at) and then write away. There is no need to go to multiple sources to confirm information, nor do you need to check for ulterior motives; there is a clear answer and it can be obtained with one phone call. The resulting culture in which people only have to do a fraction of the legwork of investigative journalists do. To be sure, there are some sites which do some excellent investigative work (Gamasutra immediately comes to mind), but these are few and far between; it seems most outlets are willing to rely on others to break stories and then link back to that story.
What then to make of video game journalists as a whole? First, I think we need to make it entirely clear that being a journalist only applies to a fraction of the stories a member of the video games press produces, ones where t he communication of pure facts is at the heart of the subject. Within this framework we can then say that a journalist is someone who ensures both their own impartiality and the factual accuracy of their story before going to print (although even this definition isn’t purely satisfactory to me, as I do all of this on occasion and still don’t consider myself a journalist).
As is likely obvious at this point, this definition leaves an enormous group of people left out in the cold because they don’t report purely factual stories. This is why I feel that some members of the press, a much larger group, need to stop fetishizing the idea of being a “real journalist”. Instead, writers need to recognize that, by and large, the main function of the video game press is not just to be real, serious, factual journalists. Instead, most of the value of the video game press comes from the opinions that authors pen, the reviews of latest releases, and the commentary that they provide on a particular issue. Inside this framework, how much of a old school journalist you are doesn’t matter one bit, because you aren’t staking your piece on objective facts. Instead, the value of commentary is entirely determined by the reader, whomever they may be. This is why HipHopGamer will always be just as valuable to the community as Gamasutra, because regardless of how he writes or acts, Gerard Williams provides a valuable service to his readers by giving them a perspective they care about, and that is worth far more than publishing perfectly checked news.