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Ain't No Holiday

Written By mista sense on Thursday, April 24, 2008 | 5:58 AM

Considering the very high standards to which gamers tend to hold the journalistic integrity of their press (not that they shouldn't), it's sometimes surprising to see the degree to which a portion of the audience is ignorant to the way we have to do things.

"Ignorant" is always a negatively-connotated word, but of course, all it means is that nobody's ever told them, so let me shed some light. Why, you might ask, am I suddenly prompted to be instructive? Well, one of my colleagues pointed out last night that some distinct commonalities between a quote I received from Microsoft's Aaron Greenberg and a quote that Next-Gen received from him had prompted some commenters on NeoGAF to suggest I had plagiarized.

That's an enormously heavy allegation, of course, but when you see two publications with a similar or identical quote, it's a fair presumption. These particular GAFers probably don't understand, though, the circumstances under which companies give comment -- especially large ones such as Microsoft, who have entire public relations staffs devoted to managing executive exposure to the press.

The quote in question in this case was a response to an inquiry I'd made to Greenberg about whether Microsoft feels threatened by the Wii's marketshare and whether they're interested in leeching some of it. I was interested in this because I was investigating the possibility that the company might be rolling out some motion controls on the Xbox 360 -- but of course, "how do you feel about the Wii's marketshare" is doubtless a question that Microsoft has been asked before and continues to be asked regularly by numerous journalists from both the games press and the larger business press.

All companies -- not just in the games industry, mind you -- need to decide on a consistent message to put out to the press. Their public relations teams are tasked with staying on top of the current issues in their given industry and preparing that consistent message on every issue under the sun. In other words, executives are largely scripted and have been prepped ahead of time when talking to the press.

When a journalist requests an interview with a large company executive, the public relations staff will often demand to know ahead of time what you plan to discuss or what you want to ask -- in part, that's so they can direct you to the correct person. You don't usually get to choose who you talk to unless you have significant clout, a previous "in" or you know how to contact that person directly. But they also want to eyeball your questions ahead of time so they can plan how they will answer. The majority of the time, we try to stick to our guns and avoid allowing them to "pre-screen" us -- sometimes, though, that means we don't get the interview.

A different commenter on the GAF thread suggested that rather than talking to Greenberg, I printed a text statement as if it were conversation. I did not, but the sad truth is I might as well have.

It's frustrating for journalists because we very rarely are given spontaneous access to anyone or anything; our discussions with the people we most want to hear from are very controlled.
Therefore, the value in what we writers do is not so much in printing the prefab quotes (though the PR people would like us to), but in putting them in context alongside other information, or extrapolating from them where applicable.

Nonetheless, it's not necessarily "wrong" on the part of Microsoft -- or any other company, as they all do it -- to repeat or recycle the quotes they give, either. In fact, repeating oneself is inevitable when you're asked the same thing by many people over and over again. Deciding on a consistent corporate message isn't dishonest, it's just good business sense.

I've also got sympathy for the executives -- it must be very stressful to always need to "know your lines" in case a media person manages to squeak past your wall of protection and confront you on difficult issues.

It's problematic on both sides, but that's just how it is. Now, I certainly do not claim that plagiarism never happens in my line of work. This can range from subtler offenses, like stealing a source or tip without credit, to much more overt ones -- just recently, my former boss Simon Carless came up with a brilliant plan to catch someone in the act, to hilarious results.

However, I'd say that the large majority of us -- at least, myself and everyone I know and work with -- intensely prize their ethics and would never do such things. I'd advise readers of all stripes to be aware of the circumstances under which we work before presuming that a quotation is stolen.

The other day at Magical Wasteland I chipped in some comments to a discussion that wondered why game journalists don't tend to stick around, or why most people appear to use journalism as a platform to game development or some other adjacent career, rather than committing to it as a career. The resulting question, of course, is why do we burn out so damn quickly?

The wary dance between writers and PR? Being constantly on the defensive against a demanding audience? Or facing a pure, widespread incomprehension of what it is we ought to be doing or what it is we're aiming to do? A little bit of each, perhaps.

I love my job, and I'm nowhere near burnt out yet. But I have empathy for those who are.

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