Following the recent blow-up where the term “game journalist ethics” took so many body blows it is amazing to see it still standing, it is good to see that things are back to normal. The signs and portents of this recovery are now here, with Rock Paper Shotgun’s Jim Rossignol promoting his own Kickstarter project on Rock Paper Shotgun.
Yes, he discloses his conflict of interest right up front of his article, but in a situation where a games “journalist” (as Rossignol is called in the first sentence of his bio on RPS: “Jim has been a gaming journalist for a long time“) actually runs the gaming studio they are covering in their own article, then the article shouldn’t run at all. Simply disclosing the conflict of interest isn’t good enough, especially when it is a direct call for money.
(I notice that Rossignol’s studio, Big Robot, has had a number of articles written about it on RPS, including announcements for one title being available to purchase on Steam. But all shielded with a notice that a conflict exists, as if you only need to recognise there’s a problem and then you can then ignore it.)
Kickstarters live and die on the amount of awareness they raise – awareness leads to interest, which in turn leads to payment if you get enough people excited. Having direct access to a site like RPS promoting their title is something that numerous indie game developers would kill for. RPS announcing the Big Robot Kickstarter means that other sites will pick that event up and promote it further – I notice that Eurogamer has an article up about it and mention Rossignol’s RPS link, but don’t mention in the article at the time of writing that RPS and Eurogamer have a commercial relationship (which they really should, in the interests of transparency) – and there are benefits from the social media promotion attached to RPS.
Rossignol could have just relied on trying to attract attention through the official Big Robot site, but it’s highly likely that RPS gets a lot more attention. As one metric of this, at the time of writing, the Big Robot forums only have 96 active members while RPS forums has 1414 active members. I’d expect the site traffic to RPS is a lot higher too.
Using This To Your Own Selfish Advantage
It also points to an interesting blind spot in RPS’ ethics if you were thinking about trying your own Kickstarter – if you hire an RPS “journalist”, there’s very good precedent for that “journalist” to write about that Kickstarter on RPS. They’ll openly declare their conflict of interest, but from then on it’s fine to promote that Kickstarter on RPS. So budget some freelance writer money and find something for a writer to do, because the hypothetical you could easily end up with some extra dialogue written AND the front page of RPS at least once if you take this route.
Just something to think about.
The Simple Solution
Not using RPS to promote Big Robot’s Kickstarter would make it possibly harder for Rossignol to reach the funding target (although some people would be aware of Rossignol’s relationship with both RPS and Big Robot and help promote it anyway), but that’s the problem with journalistic ethics – if you ignore them when they present a problem you shouldn’t pretend to follow them at all.
There are two simple solutions to this issue:
- Don’t write an article on a topic that you are going to financially benefit from (outside of the usual payment arrangement for the article). Journalism isn’t promoting your company / its products to the wider public; that particular form of communication is better known as advertising. It isn’t enough to say, “There’s a conflict here”, and then publish the article anyway.
- If you feel the need to write an article that you are going to financially benefit from, stop calling yourself a gaming journalist. A lot of games writers want to be be called “journalists” because that term carries with it a lot more respect. However, it also means a lot more responsibility needs to be taken when developing an article – people expect more from journalists than they do from writers, which is one of the reasons why the public can get so angry when it appears that a journalist has breached expected codes of conduct. At the very least people expect journalists to be independent from the stories they cover rather than part-owners of a business who’d benefit from the story.
Either you are a journalist covering what is occurring in an industry or you are employed within that industry. You can’t be both at the same time.
I’ll end this article with a quote from RPS’s John Walker during another time that RPS covered a Big Robot title (although one I believe was free to play, so there was less of a financial conflict in that case):
“Indeed, what is a Rock, Paper, Shotgun to do when one of its own accidentally plops out a game? Should we not cover it out of modesty and propriety? Should we aim to be “objective”, as if that’s a thing? Should we overly promote it at a cost to informing our readers about other games we haven’t made? Yes. We should do all three. But today instead I’m going to show off some of the screenshots[.]”
If you want to be accept the mantle of journalist – even games journalist – then you need to be willing to stop at the “Yes” and not move straight onto the “but…”.