bogus journalists

Here’s a story that’s been making the rounds in more literate gaming circles recently:

Tecmo Admits to Pampering Press With Girls, Brings Out More Girls to Make Point

that, to my thinking, perfectly illustrates the problem with “games journalism” – it isn’t really journalism, the people working in it aren’t journalists and weren’t ever really trained as such, yet they persist in using the terms simply because they’re writing about something in a magazine format and publishing it.

From my own little informal survey of the backgrounds of the more prominent/popular “games journalists” online these days (consisting of me visiting their biographical materials and/or personal websites/blogs), I’m not seeing very many that actually hold degrees in journalism, or even claim to have studied it in school. Most of them seem to be from graphic design backgrounds and worked in advertising prior to getting into the field, with a smattering of Comp. Sci. and Japanese majors rounding out the cast. Most of them did not get their jobs by following a traditional “journalism” career path and gaining the relevant experience that comes with it – it seems that a lot of them got their jobs just by running a personal gaming site for a number of years.

Now I’m not making the argument here that anyone not trained by some formal accredited institution in journalism can’t become a good and competent journalist. However, when you see them saying stuff like (and I’ll withhold names here out of courtesy) “I’m going to take a junket and then write a review about it, and the company is comping me on everything, but that doesn’t matter because I won’t let it influence my review.”

Welcome to a second-year college class in Media Ethics! You just failed! See you next semester!

Seriously, this isn’t quite the same thing as getting “review copies”, and it’s seeing the nuance there that is part of being a “real” journalist. It’s also understanding what journalism – not “games journalism”, but traditional journalism – is about. It’s more than just “writing about stuff and being interesting and doing it in a format that Big Corporate Publications like.” Journalism is a critical part of a functioning democracy, or really any political/social system that isn’t an overt dictatorship. Real journalists – and these are admittedly getting fewer and fewer in number, a problem going well beyond the realm of “games journalism” – understand that they are really a sort of social servant. Reviewing games is admittedly a different sort of animal, but there’s some context that transfers over – you’re supposed to be an independent, objective source, and you’re supposed to Question power, not fete it.

So you can see why a real journalist might feel a little insulted when, say, some kid who used to run a Quake site gets a job writing for a publication that comes across as little more than a controlled PR exercise, just blithely ignores or violates really basic principles of ethics, then starts telling the world they are a “journalist” in between doing write-ups of the latest Mega Man knockoffs.

I think the problem stems from both this and the fact that “games journalism” has been tainted from inception. The only game rag I can think of in the whole sordid history of the biz that even approached real standards of journalism were the old Computer Gaming World and VG&CE (Video Games and Computer Entertainment), and even they drifted more and more toward the Dark Side as the old-guard staff members of both gradually peeled off to other things over the years and ownership situations changed (by the mid-90s VG&CE was virtually indistinguishable from GamePro). Most people’s concept of “games journalism” growing up was Nintendo Power – a corporate-distributed rag that shamelessly posed as being an objective source of information. I think some rags now do at least make a tilt at objectivity, but they’re so bound up in this whole situation of razor-thin profit margins, competitive drive to get exclusive interviews and first-look previews, and complete reliance for advertising income on the industry that they are supposed to be critical of, that they structurally can’t sustain acting like real journalists all the time even if they want to.

What’s the answer to all this? Hell if I know man, this is my blog, I’m just here to grouse. I can tell you that it doesn’t take a master carpenter to see that a roof is leaking, however, and that an industry that sees it as perfectly OK for magazine editors to be flown out to Tokyo and plied with booze and wenches is probably not a news source that you can put your trust in.

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