Last week I posted the first video for my game journalism mentorship program. In the video I walked through the history of journalism, its importance and the best practices of being a journalist. Among the specific topics were things like the pursuit of truth and a journalist’s definition of objectivity and why that’s important.
For those of you who would rather read than watch, I’ve posted the full script of my talk below. This was what I referred to and sometimes just read while doing the video. It’s not an exact match for what the video includes, but it’s pretty close. Also, feel free to watch the video here and definitely take the time to check out our big roundtable on the topics here.
Here’s the talk, keep in mind it’s a bit rough and meant to be read aloud:
The difference between being a game journalist and being a journalist is absolutely nothing.
So then, what is a journalist?
That’s a complex question and essentially what the bulk of this talk is about, but in a nutshell, whether a person is a journalist or not is defined by their written work and how it is created.
There is an excellent book out there that anyone hoping to be a journalist should read. It’s the updated third edition of The Elements of Journalism.
The reason this book is so useful is because in establishing and examining what it means to be a journalist and the importance of journalism, the authors worked with the Committee of Concerned Journalist and 1,200 practicing journalists to try and get to the bottom of a bunch of thorny questions.
More than any other book I’ve read on the topic, Elements reflects the attitudes, concerns and evolution of the practice of journalism I’ve been witness to at newspapers, magazines and websites over the 20 or so years of my career.
I’ve drawn a lot from this book, and others I’ll mention at the end of this talk, along with my personal experiences to put together this lecture.
My hope is that you’ll come away from this with a better understanding of the importance of journalism, what it means to be a journalist and a touch of the techniques used to do journalism.
Before we dive into the principles of journalism, let’s talk a little bit about how newspapers and journalism came to be. Tracking the birth of journalism and its evolution is a great way to predict how best to proceed as the media environment continues to grow in complexity and voices.
Modern journalism traces its roots back to popular seventeenth century gathering places, like the coffee house and pub, where travelers would share stories of the things they had seen during their journeys.
As these spoken stories became pamphlets, periodicals and eventually newspapers, the telling of these stories became a profession.
Journalism went through a number of evolutions from the political pamphleteering of the 17th century to the eye-witness accounts and essays written by the likes of Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift in the 18th century. The 19th century brought with it war correspondents and the advent of “new journalism,” which strived for a more populist audience. Then came yellow journalism. The early 20th century saw the rise of tabloid journalism, the birth of investigative journalism, journalism schools and journalism as a profession.
Journalism has always been influenced by the technology of the day, so it’s not surprising that today’s use of Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social communication are impacting the way journalists do their jobs.
So, who is a journalist and who isn’t?
Anyone can be a journalist. It doesn’t require a degree or a job at a newspaper or even a byline. Journalism is the act of truth telling through intellectual independence. At least that’s how I would boil it down.
But that’s a very general statement. Truth itself is a hard thing to pin down. And intellectual independence, a phrase used in The Elements of Journalism, is really another form of objectivity.
Objectivity is a word thrown around a lot when it comes to the underpinnings of journalism. But objectivity in the journalism sense is about the method of journalism, not the pure impartiality of the person practicing it.
No one is or could ever be truly objective, that’s why journalism has guiding principles to govern how information is gathered and presented. The idea is that through these methods, journalists can strip away their own inherent proclivities. Journalism is in practice the blending of two skills: The reporting, driven by science and evaluation, and the writing, driven by art.
The duality of the profession is so strong that a degree in journalism can be a bachelor of arts or of science depending on where you obtain it.
In the end, what a journalist should seek before all else, before money or traffic or even their own publication, is a plain, understandable telling of the events.
In its simplest form, it is the job of a journalist to arm citizens with the knowledge they need to make their own decisions and come to their own conclusions.
I use the word citizen because I’m shying away from the word reader. The reader isn’t who a journalist is beholden to, it’s the citizens – readers or not.
Before landing my first full-time newspaper gig, I was lucky enough to participate in a year-long, post-graduate fellowship at Knight-Ridder. The program had me traveling to three different newspapers located around the country, and living in those communities for four months each as I worked as a journalist for the paper.
My first stop, straight out of college, was the tiny town of Albany, Oregon where I worked at the Albany Democrat-Herald. During one of my many assignments there, I covered a late night city hall meeting for a nearby town that dealt with the issue of housing for migrant workers.
Over the course of the heated discussion, both town members and council members talked about the concerns they had with migrant workers. Most of those concerns dealt with their own negative perceptions of migrants. They were concerned about workers raping their children, about a rise in crime, about the increased temporary population.
The story raised hackles when it ran, not because people denied the talk happened, but because they seemed embarrassed, in retrospect, of how it made them look.
It was a story that no one at the event wanted to run, but it sparked an important dialog among migrant workers and town folk.
Sometimes, journalism isn’t about providing what a citizen wants to read about, but what they need to read about.
In putting together The Elements of Style, Bill Kovach & Tom Rosenstiel created a number of important lists. At the top, is a list of what they believe are the basic principles of journalism.
They are in order: Truth, loyalty to citizens, a discipline of verification and independence of mind.
For obvious and not so obvious reasons, Truth is at the top of the pile. It is through truth that journalists can inform the public. And it is through truth that a sense of trust is established when journalists begin to investigate and uncover lies. Elements goes beyond this to say that journalistic truth is the truth derived from the process of discovery, reporting and writing.
“The first principle of journalism – its disinterested pursuit of truth – is ultimately what sets journalism apart from other forms of communication,” according to the book.
Truth is always a defined truth, but in using the processes of investigating, finding direct eye-witnesses or sources and verifying news, this truth strives to be the most accurate.
Loyalty deals with the fact that journalists have to put citizens first. That means coverage can’t be purchased by advertisers, warped by friends, or skewed by personal interest.
When I am interviewing someone or have access to a place the public doesn’t, I try to imagine the bulk of my potential audience, all of those citizens, resting on my shoulders,n counting on me to get to the truth.
The discipline of verification is best summed up by a line made famous by the new defunct City News Bureau of Chicago: “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.”
It’s also addressed in the grim adage of an editor telling a reporter at the service to go back to the scene of a crime to find out what color a dead baby’s eyes were.
Assume nothing, double check everything. Find multiple sources, multiple takes on the same event. Dig until you get to truth.
Finally, that journalism hobgoblin: Objectivity, or intellectual independence. That doesn’t mean neutrality, it means adhering to those principles of fact-checking, accuracy and loyalty to the public. It means informing, not manipulating.
With these guiding principles also come a number of obligations, including going beyond verification and authentication to provide context and to synthesize the information in a way that makes sense and is interesting to readers.
Yes, journalists need to be watch dogs, but they also can be curators of other’s stories, forum leaders, witnesses to events. They can and should not just cover what the public is screaming for, but also what no one else covers. In so doing, journalism can give voice to the voiceless.
Journalists also need to be role models of journalism and walk the line between advocacy and problem solving.
They need to be willing to seek out and present a mix of coverage, to provide the public with a selection of news. And above all else, journalists need to be responsible to their own conscience, speaking out when they believe these principles are being violated or subverted even if that means speaking out against their own publication.
The Guardian made a giant leap forward in their approach to journalism in 2009, by combining traditional journalism with a push online to have readers help them with a story as potential eyewitnesses.
Today, The Guardian regularly uses open journalism to tackle big, important stories. That approach includes the paper’s coverage of Iraq, Afghanistan and Edward Snowden.
What it means is lowering the wall between the reporter and the reader and seeking help which is then pushed through the principles of journalism.
This concept of open journalism has changed how the paper covers everything from world events to sports and travel. It’s a concept that everyone should follow.
It’s also a reminder that journalists, professionally trained journalists, aren’t the only game in town anymore. Nowadays you’re just as likely to see solid reporting from a Twitter user in Egypt or Ferguson as you are from a newspaper or wire service.
You can thank technology for that, and you should. It means that journalists are no longer the gatekeepers of information, but it also means that suddenly a good journalist has a million eyes, and they’re everywhere. And it changes the relationship that reporters have to their readers, both increasing a writer’s reach, but also making it all the more important to get the story right the first time and to weigh reaction.
Of course the same rules of journalism apply, but if used correctly, Twitter, Facebook, all of the social media sites can lead to powerful, crowd-sourced reporting.
And it’s your obligation as a reporter that you use this new tool both to forward your reporting but also to keep in touch with the citizens that you serve.
This new boon does come with plenty of danger. The instantaneous reporting of news by non-journalists and journalists can easily lead to bad reporting, a lack of fact-checking and misinformation.
Speed is important in journalism, but not as important as accuracy.
Years ago, a friend and co-worker of mine, Mike McWhertor, came to me with a story. He had it down pat with multiple reliable sources and strong contextual reporting. He had learned that Sony was soon to unveil a virtual space on the PlayStation 3 called home. The last step was to seek verification from Sony representatives.
Over the course of an hour or so, that last step lead to a very different sort of story. Sony officials warned and then threatened the publication, saying if we posted the story they would cut us off from all access to the company, its games and its people.
We published the story anyway and Dave Karraker, senior director of corporate communications for Sony Computer Entertainment America, made good on his threat, sending a letter detailing how the blackballing would be carried out.
I made the decision that publishing that letter from Karraker was in the interest of the public because it shed light on what was at the time considered by some video game publishers, a typical way of doing business. That decision to publish was driven by those journalistic principles. As I later wrote to Karraker:
“I think this only highlights the differences that PR people and journalists have. My interest is not in making sure that Sony has positive news or that the timing of their news is correct, my job only is to inform the readers of news as quickly and accurately as I can.”
The reaction by the public and other publications quickly led to a retraction by Sony. It remains a perfect example of why journalists should adhere to these principles and how in so doing those principles afford journalists and the publications they work for a bit of protection.
A few year’s back I wrote a short piece on video game journalism and ethics. At the time I said that journalism ethics were never more murky than when removed from the stark light of dire circumstances.
The point I was making is how easy it is to fall into the trap of thinking that in covering culture or entertainment, perhaps ethics and the principles of journalism aren’t as important.
But journalism is journalism, no matter the beat.
Journalism, Gene Foreman writes in The Ethical Journalist, “serves the public by providing reliable information that people need to make governing decisions about their community, state and nation.”
Community is the key word here. In saying that they cover video games, what most game journalists really mean is that they are covering the community of video games. That community includes researches, game developers, publishers, artists, writers, musicians, game players, parents, politicians, and the list goes on and on and on.
The community of gaming wants and deserves thoughtfully informed coverage, journalism created by journalists. Just as importantly, as Kovach and Rosentiel write, the “reporting of culture, social events, trends, sports and much more form a vital part of how we come to understand community and civil society and how, as citizens, we navigate our lives.”
It’s hard, I’ve discovered, to try and summarize the whole of journalism in a short talk. So what I’ve done here is to try and touch on the most important aspects of journalism and being a journalist.
I highly recommend reading some of the books I’ve listed below. Over the course of your mentorship we’ll also be delving much more into these topics and putting those principles to practice.
This was part of a quick primer on journalism and game journalism as part of a mentorship program I am conducting. Citations and reading suggestions below.
Source and reading material:
Book: Online Journalism Ethics
Book: The Ethical Journalist
Article: Video games and newsroom management
Article: On gaming, ethics and journalism
Article: The journalism mentorship