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The Soapbox: What it means to be a game journalist

Eliot Lefebvre

The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column. Additionally, this article is written in contrast to Jef Reahard's Soapbox on how video game journalists are not real journalists; Massively's writers' opinions on the subject vary.

People have, on a few occasions, asked me for advice on becoming a game journalist. My usual response, which is only half-joking, is, "Don't."

In just a handful of months, I'll be hitting my three-year anniversary for working Massively. That means I've had one of the longest tenures at the site, which is kind of staggering in my mind. I still fundamentally think of myself as one of the new kids on the block. But for better or worse, I've been doing this for a while and have a pretty good grasp of what the job entails.

Of course, that's still a subject of debate. As with a lot of topics, people as a whole can't even decide on what makes someone a game journalist instead of just an enthusiast with some advertising revenue. To some people, it's not even a real job, just a hobby. I'm one of those people who never like to pin down an exact definition of something that's ambiguous... but I can define what I see as my responsibilities in this job.

It's a lot like being in the Illuminati, except instead of guns and cool coats, we get what we already wear.  And we know secrets that less rewrite the world and more allow us to predict when games will launch.Be honest

This is a pretty basic one, but it still bears repeating. There are a lot of stories that could be debated on their relevance, a lot of stories in which a statement could be read multiple different ways, and so forth. But when reporting on news, what has to matter, first and foremost, is fact.

That means that when I write up a story, it's based on the facts as I understand them. There may be additional facts that I don't know at the time, ranging from fine points of game mechanics to details that a company kept under wraps, but if they're not there when I write the story up, it's a symptom of my not knowing them.

Own mistakes

Sometimes, I'm going to say something that's later revealed to be wrong. Sometimes I'm going to slip up and type "Interrogator" when I meant "Inquisitor," or I'm going to call an ability by the name of a similar but different ability. Or I'm just going to make a typo that renders a sentence meaningless. I've been writing about 1500 words a day for the site; the occasional mistake is pretty much inevitable.

When someone calls me on it, that means it's my job to admit that I made a goof and correct it.

Sometimes, that stings. It's really unpleasant to have someone spend a huge chunk of an email complaining about how you're a hack because you made a minor factual error. But part of being a professional writer means being humble, apologizing, and correcting the mistake. An unintentional error is still an error, and it needs to be fixed. And being humble is pretty important on its own because we can't afford to be spending energy arguing with our readers.

Be even-handed

We have some readers whom I absolutely adore, some readers whom I'm fairly neutral toward, and some readers who I don't think contribute much of value to the site's community. As a journalist, I have an obligation to fulfill my responsibilities toward all of them equally. Whether I agree with you or not, when you ask a question on Ask Massively, it's part of my job to answer it if at all possible. Occasionally questions do get passed over, but it's never a matter of whether or not I like the reader who asked. Polls on Choose My Adventure don't get screened based on whether or not I like the people who are voting for one thing or another.

That extends to the comments, as well. I might think that you're wrong, but my job isn't to get into the comments and start arguing with you until you think I'm right. My job is to present my opinion or the news depending on the nature of a given piece. No more, no less.

Similarly, my job entails not showing bias toward a particular game or type of game. There are games I dislike, including a couple that I think are actively harmful to the genre as a whole, but if I'm writing news up about those games, I'm going to use a fairly neutral tone. And if the only thing I can write on opinion columns is a reiteration of how I dislike game X or mechanic Y or genre Z, I need to step back and ask whether I'm actually writing anything of worth.

Not a very good journalist.  Good reoccurring character, though.
Accept and acknowledge biases

The most persistent argument against game journalists' being real journalists is the simple fact that we're all biased by definition. You don't go into game journalism without being interested in video games any more than you get involved in playing hockey if you're afraid of ice. If you're biased, you don't make a good journalist.

Of course, if that's our criterion, we should probably also kick every other journalist ever out of the coveted throne. Human beings have biases. We have opinions, we like certain things and dislike others, and we get touchy about certain matters. There's a world of difference between having a bias and emptying that bias full-force at every vaguely relevant opportunity.

I'll freely admit that I'm biased in my columns. In fact, I think every single non-news piece that I've ever written has included very open statements about how I'm biased. I don't see that as an impediment to my writing ability; it's just something that I have to be aware of as I write, something that I have to make clear, and something that can correspondingly be understood. Claiming that I don't hold valid or useful opinions on subjects that I feel strongly about is kind of silly.

"The problem is that it's seen as a boolean operation. You're either a hard-hitting investigative reporter or you're not a real journalist."

Keep it interesting

All of this builds to one very important fact: As a game journalist, I'm an entertainment journalist. Comparisons to Woodward and Bernstein are pretty inaccurate; we're closer to E! or ESPN than CNN.

The problem is that it's seen as a boolean operation. You're either a hard-hitting investigative reporter or you're not a real journalist. That's beyond inaccurate, and that's part of the reason why I listed the networks I did. You might not be fond of celebrity gossip, but they're still reporters, albeit reporters in a very specialized field. They're there to inform enthusiasts about points of interest, and that's still an important job that still has certain responsibilities.

So we do have an obligation to print interesting stories, to put together opinion columns that are worth reading, to keep readers engaged and companies willing to give us interesting exclusives. But the "journalist" part comes first. If I'm given a choice between making a company happy and reporting facts, I opt for facts. If I'm given a choice between writing a column that a company will like and writing one that I feel is honest, I'll opt for the latter, even though sometimes that makes my job harder from then on out.

In short, I think that this job carries with it the responsibility to act like a journalist. Sure, I'm not reporting on presidential politics, but I'm still here to report on gaming news and provide interesting editorials. Those aren't mutually incompatible with any of the criteria people generally use to denigrate game journalism.

Ultimately, it comes down to our own actions. For my money, I'd prefer to act in what I see as a professional fashion, even if not everyone agrees on what that entails. And, hey, being in the middle of the debate is part of the fun.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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