How to avoid being a journalist

by Dan on May 1, 2013

If you’ve read my book (or at least page 22), you know I use the word “journalist” very carefully when describing game reviewers. I see no shame in the titles “reviewer” or “critic” whatsoever, but I feel “journalist” is pushing it if all you do is evaluate software. But over my career, I did a fair amount of journalism too — writing features, reporting news, finding facts, researching information, interviewing people, assembling all those pieces into a larger, digestible whole for the reader. I encourage game review as a first, accessible step into a career in the games media, but those advanced skills will give you better opportunities in the long run. If you’re interested in doing more than reviews, that advanced role comes with extra responsibilities.

Up here on my soapbox, I can’t help but notice some people who are not taking those responsibilities seriously. Getting hits on your blog or views on your video does not make you a journalist, yet it seems there’s a fair amount of folks who confuse attention with credibility. 

Case in point, with a personal twist: At my day job, I answer gamer questions, and someone wrote in to ask if Activision would be re-releasing No One Lives Forever. That game was developed by Monolith and published by Fox Interactive. A few years later, Vivendi bought Fox Interactive and, later, Activision, so it’s a logical assumption that Activision might have the IP. I did some digging at work and could not find proof that NOLF was still at Activision; several properties were sold off around the time of the big merge, so it’s certainly possible that someone made an offer for it. It ultimately came down to “it looks like we don’t have it; if we did, we probably would have put it on GOG by now.” For good measure I asked a friend at the NOLF developer, Monolith (now a WB studio) and — while it is not strictly his job to know such things — he, too, couldn’t confirm the fate of the franchise.

So, my duty is done. I replied honestly that I don’t believe Activision has the rights so I don’t think you’ll see anything NOLF-related coming from my side of the fence.

Now, at this point, my old media spider-sense got tingling. Surely someone owns it, right? It didn’t just disappear and it’s likely not in the public domain this quickly. Maybe Activision does have it after all; maybe Monolith has it and my contact simply wasn’t in that loop; maybe another publisher bought it and is quietly sitting on it for its own reasons. Fan-favorite cult IP goes missing? Sounds like a newsworthy story to me, and there’s already some information to go on.

Instead, to my disappointment, nobody picked up the trail. The bulk of the reporting consisted of the embedding or quoting of my video and saying “Activision doesn’t know where NOLF is.” Worse, some outlets incorrectly spun that as “Nobody knows who owns NOLF.”

Can I impolitely suggest that someone would know who owns NOLF if you got off your ass and did some journalism? This sloppy, inaccurate reporting and general lack of motivation to dig deeper is a core frustration for me right now. Lazy hearsay should not pass as media coverage. We need more people doing the work and thinking for themselves.

I see coverage falling into three categories lately, from most engaged to laziest:

Someone realizes there is information to be found, research to be done, truth to be uncovered and comprehended and reported. Someone goes and gets this story — in this NOLF example, a writer or editor starts calling their contacts at companies to try to track down the location and ownership of what was once a major franchise, and one that still has a passionate fan base. There will be blind alleys; there will be “no comment”s. This is why we call it work.

Some folks aren’t going to do the research — maybe they don’t know how yet — but they will at least listen to the video and understand what it says. At the very least, a reporter with comprehension will present what they have heard factually and accurately, perhaps adding their own thoughts for further discussion with their audience. In terms of motivation and fact-finding, they’ve missed the bus, but simply by understanding what a bus looks like now, maybe they will catch the next one when they recognize it. However, a responsible, critically thinking reporter will not say “Nobody knows where NOLF is” when the actual information was “I don’t think Activision has it.” This akin to hearing “The pizza I ordered is not ready yet” and concluding “That pizzeria is out of business.” Journalism is not a game of Telephone.

This requires the least amount of effort, and it’s what many smaller outlets (and some larger outlets) often do: They repeat what they hear. It’s certainly easy to listen to someone speak and say “here’s what they said,” and it requires little to no ambition. Parroting might be newsworthy when it comes to a politician speaking, or even a game’s fact sheet when people want to know specific details or turns of phrase, but in a case like the NOLF question, it’s a sure sign that the writer has no reporting instincts whatsoever. They should not be calling themselves journalists.

And perhaps they don’t. I do realize that some bloggers and YouTubers do not consider themselves journalists — they are seeking attention, not responsibility — but at that point, they’re just adding noise, which helps nobody. It doesn’t even help themselves, when potential audience members figure out (and they will) that these not-journalists have nothing new to say, nothing to add to the conversation. Why listen to an echo when you can seek out a source?

I believe a lot of folks take the easy path because they want the easy hits. But real reporters don’t go for the easiest path all the time. People who make names for themselves in games media must earn the respect attributed to their names by all those things that define journalists: fact-finding, investigation, analysis. A lot of hopefuls miss that part, I think — they just see media members with status and access and they want that too. If you want that, no matter how meager, you need to find facts instead of simply repeating a lack of them.

By the criteria I’m offering here, there are definitely people out there doing it “right.”  But I think too many inexperienced writers and site editors (and subsequently readers) are settling for less. When news breaks or information is released, I’d encourage you to think critically about what you hear, see, and say. With no responsibility comes no credibility.

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