Gaming journalism can’t shake unethical stigma

I suspect that many an eager aspiring journalist gets advice to not sell out from their peers as they prepare to make the transition into their career.

For as long as video game journalism has existed, the perception has thrived that advertising, not content, rules the editorial agenda. While ethics in gaming journalism rears its ugly head periodically, there is nothing done to quell any myths about media outlets being inextricably aligned with the interests of the advertisers.

Ars Technica reported that Microsoft partnered with Machinima to pay YouTube personalities — YouTubers — an additional $3 CPM, or $3 per 1,000 video views. There is no relative harm in paying out a little extra to YouTubers except when the agreement includes clauses that require nondisclosure of the agreement and clearly states, “You may not say anything negative or disparaging about Machinima, Xbox One or any of its Games in your Campaign Video.”

 

 

The ethical nature of this agreement comes into question because those who possess media literacy will argue that YouTubers aren’t journalists. The issue at hand is the average YouTube viewer isn’t media literate enough to know the difference between Machinima’s editorial arm of the company and the YouTube hosted content side that features content not produced by Machinima. These types of deals are not uncommon for YouTubers with rumors of EA reportedly paying even more for favorable content about their games.

All this does is fuel the fire of speculation that video game publishers meddle with media. It blurs the line separating professional journalism from citizen commentary.

Jeff Gerstmann was involved in what might be one of the most notorious instances of editorial interference in 2007. It was alleged that Eidos Interactive, publisher of “Kane & Lynch: Dead Men,” pressured GameSpot to fire Gerstmann, then editorial director at GameSpot, for a “Fair” review.

Eidos was heavily advertising into GameSpot at the time, employing a “Kane & Lynch” themed site. He was under a non-disparagement agreement until 2012, when he revealed that other instances of publishers’ perceptions of negative-scored reviews led to his dismissal.

Electronic Gaming Monthly weathered its own controversy, forcing publisher, Steve Harris, to comment on an extremely positive review for “Aliens: Colonial Marines,” which was critically panned. Sega was also running an “Aliens” themed advertising campaign on EGM at the time of its release.

“Any review should certainly be subject to criticism, but censoring an opinion or reshaping a particular reviewer’s point of view into something other than their own personal feelings is, in my opinion, worse than publishing a review that others may feel is ‘wrong,’” Harris said.

Any comment on ethical journalism should be taken with a grain of salt. The public should believe a media outlet is promoting ethical journalism unless proven otherwise.

When news of the Microsoft and Machinima deal broke, Dan Stapleton, reviews editor at IGN tweeted, “Big publications like the ones I’ve worked for at least have church/state barriers between sales and editorial. YouTubers don’t.”

The problem isn’t companies like Microsoft paying for coverage of games. The problem is taking advantage of a form of media that at best is misrepresentative of professional journalism.

“Don’t sell out” just might be the best piece of advice a journalist can get.

Reach the reporter at michael.jerome.martin@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @NefariousMike