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Objective: Impossible?

An objective approach to games journalism is a noble goal, but black-and-white reporting still has a lot of gray area

Let's talk about objectivity and game journalism, since it's kind of my thing. I was a big advocate of straight-forward reporting in journalism school, and carried that approach into my first newspaper job, covering the police and fire beat for a suburban Chicago newspaper. I kept that approach when I joined the GameSpot news team in 2005, and then in 2012 when I moved to, even as the industry around me seemed to be turning sharply toward more opinionated and personality-driven news coverage.

When I write news (as opposed to opinion pieces like this one), I do my best to be as even-handed as possible, such that the average reader would have difficulty determining exactly what my personal opinions on the subject are given only the article at hand. I second-guess myself every time I'm about to include something subjective in a story, like calling a franchise "successful" or a developer "renowned."

Let me give you a painful example of this. The following is a box quote from the North American PSP release of Platypus, taken from an article I wrote on GameSpot. To my knowledge, it is the only time my writing has been quoted on a game's packaging:

The graphics are made entirely out of clay.

"Platypus is squarely in the traditionally hardcore genre of side-scrolling 2D shooters. Platypus has its own unique visual style in that the graphics are made entirely out of clay."

That quote makes me cringe for a few reasons. For one, it's poorly written, but I can live with that. (If you write news for any amount of time, you're going to have plenty of clunkers.) And it's not that the box quote was actually called out for mockery in a Joystiq review for stating the facts more than touting the game's qualities. The big reason that quote still nags at me is that the reference to a "unique visual style" is too subjective for my liking.

Is the visual style unique? Technically, yes. No other game has exactly those colored pixels in exactly that configuration. But you could say that about any game. Does Platypus really deserve the word in a world that had previously seen The Neverhood, Skullmonkeys, and Clayfighters (and likely others I just can't remember offhand)? Maybe still. But it's a judgment call, and one I wish I had left up to the reader.

So I'm a fan of aiming for objectivity in news reporting. It serves a noble purpose in attempting to inform readers about the happenings of the day without prejudicing them to one conclusion or another. It also acknowledges that writers are human and flawed, that they don't know everything, that they often aren't working with all the facts, and that they might not have a perfect understanding of every situation. I can't tell you how many times striving for objectivity as a best practice has kept me from jumping to the wrong conclusion and reporting something factually inaccurate, whether it be because I had misread a legislative proposal or because a publisher was choosing its words with a deliberate eye toward deception.

"I can't tell you how many times striving for objectivity as a best practice has kept me from jumping to the wrong conclusion and reporting something factually inaccurate."

But there are limits to what can be done on this front. One of the key roles any media outlet plays is filtering all the news out there and deciding what things are relevant for its specific audience. So right there, we're already making subjective assessments as to what news is worth covering. And once we've decided to cover a story, the subjective decisions start to multiply. What's the lead of the story, the most important piece of information? Is it the record revenues the company just posted, or the widespread layoffs? Do we mention the CFO resigning in the lead, or save that for further down where fewer people will ever read it? Do we mention that the recent acquisition of a rival that helped pad out the quarterly revenues? Or that this is the fourth round of layoffs in the last two years? Is it worth noting that the company's long-delayed AAA effort launched last month and dominated the competition? Do we focus on the good news or the bad news in the headline and strap? Do we throw all of this into one story or split it into multiple standalone pieces?

There isn't really one right answer to those questions. It's all subjective, and different people will make different decisions all the way down the line. In the end, the coverage between two writers--even if they both espouse an objective approach to news reporting--could vary wildly.

And that's just in reporting the news. True objectivity in other aspects of journalism is even less attainable. How is one person supposed to be objective in an interview, where they are making subjective decisions on what questions to ask? When I interview developers, I try to ask them about what I think are the primary issues facing them in the industry today. That may sound fine, but my assessment of the primary issues and everybody else's can vary pretty wildly. I try to ask a mix of directed and open-ended questions to balance the subjects' interests with my desire to bring readers something interesting and insightful, but it doesn't change the fact that I am usually setting the agenda of topics based on my own assessments.

And then after the fact, I can have half an hour of discussion that I need to whittle down into maybe 1,000 words or so for the site, and the news selection assessments begin again. What's the most newsworthy stuff that was said? Which topics can be included? If there's an interesting tidbit that doesn't seem to fit in the article, do I shoehorn it in anyways or leave it on the cutting room floor? Again, a series of decisions no two people will make the same way. There is no objectivity to be found here.

All these situations are made that much more complicated by the messiness of human interactions. Recent events have had some gamers up in arms over the revelation that some writers and developers have personal relationships. First off, I agree that writers should avoid covering developers with whom they have a close relationship. And in cases where that isn't possible, disclosure may be appropriate.

"Ideally, journalists would strive to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, and writers with a potential conflict on a story would have other people handle coverage."

Sometimes it's not hard to figure out who fits that "close relationship" definition. I've known Double Fine designer JP LeBreton since we were 13. He was the best man at my wedding. I don't trust myself to cover his work impartially. I try to leave it to other staff members to make newsworthiness judgments about him and his games. That said, I've included quotes from him in developer opinion round-ups, and I've covered other Double Fine products while he's been at the studio, but always with the editor-in-chief's knowledge of the situation and permission. You may disagree, but I felt that was an appropriate way to handle a close relationship.

Sometimes it's trickier. I've known Nick Suttner, one of Sony's indie liaisons, for a bit more than a decade. Nick was not my best man, but he was at my wedding. Before I got the job at GameSpot, when I was Arts & Entertainment editor for a newspaper in Oklahoma, Nick wrote a weekly column for me. If Nick were creating a game himself, I would treat it the same way I do JP's. But he doesn't develop games. Still, he has his name somewhere in the credits of all kinds of indie work on Sony platforms. I don't know every project Nick is attached to, and I don't have any right to that information even if I felt like asking. So should I avoid any indie game on Sony platforms because there's a chance Nick would be attached to it? Or should I just include a disclosure notice about knowing Nick on any story about Sony indie games? Or Sony exclusives? Or perhaps exclusives on rival platforms? Should my friend's decision to work for a platform holder hamper my own ability to continue covering the industry?

Then there's my connection to Greg Kasavin, former GameSpot editor-in-chief turned Supergiant Games developer. I worked with Greg for a little more than a year before he left the site. I have the utmost respect for him and everything he's accomplished, but we never hung out outside of work. Of these people I've mentioned, he is the one I'm most confident in my ability to cover impartially. At the same time, he's the one other people would be most likely to identify as a conflict of interest, because my connection to him is the easiest to discover. So should my coverage of any Supergiant Games titles include a disclosure that I once worked for the same company as Greg? Should I avoid ever writing about his games again? Should I do the same with League of Legends, World of Warcraft, Rock Band, Forza Motorsport, Madden, or countless other franchises my former coworkers have worked on?

"You can say 'Don't be biased' all you want, but you'll never get everyone to agree on what constitutes bias."

Ideally, journalists would strive to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, and writers with a potential conflict on a story would have other people handle coverage. If that isn't practical because media outlets have finite staff and finite resources, a disclosure is a good way to at least inform readers of the potential conflict so they can take it into account. But again, it's a subjective call as to how granular that disclosure should be, and whose relationships should be disclosed. Should we disclose when we're covering a product whose company is advertising on our site? What if we're covering a game that isn't the one being advertised? What if the company was advertising with us, but isn't any longer? If we need to mention that, for how long after the end of an advertising relationship should it be mentioned? Should we disclose when we cover a game that is a direct competitor to one of our advertisers? At a certain point, does all this disclosure actually undermine faith in our reporters rather than bolster it? Does it prejudice people to believe the worst of games journalism, depriving us of the benefit of the doubt objective journalism tries to give its subjects?

Just as with news judgments, these are subjective issues, and different people will have different answers to these questions. From what I understand, this is where the problem lies for those calling for objectivity. They want game journalism free of bias or personal agendas, but that's impossible. The decisions journalists make at every step of the way, from which stories are worth covering to word choice and sentence structure, are all affected by their particular set of values, priorities, and thought processes. You can call that impartiality, bias, a personal agenda, or a lack of journalistic integrity, but those assessments are likewise subjective. You can tell journalists "Don't be biased" all you want, but you'll never get everyone to agree on what constitutes bias.

I don't have all the answers about the right way to do this job, and even with the ones I think I have, I know they are likely to change in time. For example, if I wrote this story again today, you can bet I'd have had Bobby Kotick's "skepticism, pessimism, and fear" quote somewhere in the lead, if not in the headline itself. But even knowing that my views will evolve as I grow older and (hopefully) wiser, there's still one thing I'm comfortable stating as objective fact: There is no such thing as objective journalism.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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