Objectivity

Illustration for article titled Objectivity

For the past few weeks, a lot of people have been asking me about “objectivity,” mostly thanks to a contextless tweet that has been circulating among the GamerGate crowd for quite some time now.

I know what you’re thinking: “GamerGate? Taking things out of context? NO.” But here we are. Take a look at the tweet in question:

Illustration for article titled Objectivity
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Your personal reaction to this tweet will likely depend on your personal definition of objectivity, especially with regard to how it applies to journalism. Ask ten different people for a proper explanation of “objectivity” and they’ll give you 40 different answers. To one reader, “objectivity” might equate to fairness; to another it might mean that a reporter must refuse to let their personal biases influence how they write or talk about a given subject. To others, being objective means keeping opinions out of reviewing and reporting.

Dictionary definitions are equally messy. Here’s what Dictionary.com says: “not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased.” And here’s Merriam-Webster: “lack of favoritism toward one side or another.”

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There’s not a lot of consistency here, and those official definitions are not particularly helpful when asking how “objectivity” applies to reviewing and reporting on video games. So come enter the realm of inside baseball and please do indulge me while I explain what I mean when I talk about this stuff.

Let’s go with that first definition. “Not influenced by personal feelings.” So when I say that objectivity is a silly thing to strive for, what I mean is that there is no such thing as reporting or reviewing that is not influenced by a writer’s personal biases and feelings.

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Every—and I do mean every—piece of writing is affected by subjective thoughts, from the number of quotes to the structure of the sentences. When a reporter chooses who to interview or how to excerpt what they’ve said, that’s subjective. The structure of a story? That’s subjective, too. The journalist who writes “Dog Bites Man” and the one who writes “Man Bitten By Dog” are each influenced by all sorts of biases both blatant and subtle. (The latter might need to draw a little more influence from, uh, good writers.)

Even the simple act of presenting basic news about video games is a process impacted by all sorts of little factors. Say EA announces a whole bunch of details on the new Star Wars: Battlefront including release date, platforms, and specific features. (Multiplayer-only! 40 players max! New maps!) Say you have to write about this. Of course, standard journalistic procedure dictates that while writing about this announcement, you’d put the most important information first. But deciding what’s “most important” is a subjective process. Is it the release date? The platforms? The fact that it won’t have a single-player campaign? Once you’ve decided, what goes next? What do you leave out? And how do you add value to your news story so it won’t read like a carbon copy of every other story, including EA’s own press release?

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Because it is impossible to write anything without making those subjective decisions, it is impossible for any journalist to achieve any sort of objectivity. And it’s silly to pretend that we can make those decisions in a vacuum. Writing can and never will be free of outside influences. It’s too malleable.

So if not objectivity, then what? I think the two most important guiding principles for a journalist are A) honesty and B) fairness. The first one is pretty obvious—and it’s pretty easy not to lie, cut corners, or pretend to know something you don’t—but being honest doesn’t just mean writing truthful things. It also means being clear about your sourcing, providing proper context for all of your quotes, and, perhaps most importantly, finding the truth even if that means challenging sources and asking tough questions—actions that are unequivocally subjective. A reporter who echoes false information or lies under the guise of “objectivity” is failing to do his or her job.

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Fairness is a little trickier, because the act of determining what is “fair” is also subjective, and it can never take priority to the truth. It’s certainly fair to ask all parties of a story for comment—and for any substantial or serious story that’s essential—but is it fair to give all of those comments equal weight? What if one party has done something wrong? What if one party is clearly lying? Is it fair for a reporter to say so? Should a journalist writing a story about gay marriage give equal space to those who are against it? When I found out last year that the game company Crytek had not paid its staff, and the company refused to comment, should I have refused to report the story because we only had one side? Sometimes reality can paint an unfair picture.

Still, a journalist’s responsibility is to be as open-minded and neutral as possible in pursuit of the truth, which is perhaps how some people define “objectivity.” If that’s your definition of the word, then I’m all for it, although it’s not quite as easy as it sounds, and recognizing one’s biases requires a level of self-awareness that can be really challenging to reach. It can be tempting, as a reporter, to come at a story with preconceived notions and shape the narrative a certain way whether or not you’ve actually figured out what really happened. Just ask the folks at Rolling Stone.

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A quick note on game reviews: obviously the notion of a review uninfluenced by opinion is silly, and reviews are not very useful in a vacuum, without influence from outside factors. But those who call for “objective reviews” while really meaning “reviews that are not affected by the pressure of video game publishers and developers,” I sympathize. Your word choice could be better, but I’m with you.

It’s tough for people who have never done this job to understand the challenges and questions that reporters face, which might be why so many seem to think it’s an easy process. As a reporter in the wild, wonderful world of gaming, I have to wear a lot of different hats, and because of that, I wind up writing and reporting a lot of different types of stories, from quick news blasts and silly blog posts to big reviews and long investigative reports. There is never a one-size-fits-all approach for what we do. Some articles call for lighthearted opinion; others call for stone-cold stoicism. But none of them ever call for objectivity. They never could.

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You can reach the author of this post at jason@kotaku.com or on Twitter at @jasonschreier.

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DISCUSSION

Most people I know who argue for “objectivity” in a thing tend to feel they’re being poorly served by the content they read, possibly because it’s propagandist, possibly because it’s... how do I put this...

There was A Major Website that assigned someone who “hated horror games” to reviewing Alan Wake and Dead Space when those games came out. This person, of course, gave the games a poor review and low analysis. Rather than writing something of benefit to the audience, they came in with their biases against horror to talk about why horror was bad rather than whether or not the audience should play these horror games or not.

So that was seen as a case of bias.

One of the common complaints, of course, is that people want multiple perspectives on a topic. When I read an article saying “hey, THIS person says this company is BAD,” but a site doesn’t even have a “we’ve reached out for comment but haven’t heard anything at this time.” I’ve read plenty of articles from different journalistic sources that very clearly use language and descriptors to subtly indicate an opinion when they could stand to be more neutral.

One of the worst articles I’ve ever read, and one I feel illustrates unfair bias was this article about a man who’d been accused of a crime. The accuser presented their case, the man presented his, the accuser dropped the case. The article went on to berate the falsely accused man for not assuming the responsibility of educating people on the crime he didn’t commit.

To me, as a victim (and I hate using that word, but I was) of a similar false accusation that absolutely messed up my life (and someone who’s been close to others who’ve received even worse accusations), this was absolutely appalling. The author’s personal bias shone through. One comment by the author more or less said “yeah, statistically, he probably did it though.”

None of this feels honest to me.

Honest reporting, I think, would have been “someone was accused of something, he denied it, those allegations were dropped.” Biased reporting is “even though everything points to him not having done it, I’m going to use this false accusation as a way to talk about why the crime that didn’t happen was a bad thing.”

That, to me, is deeply troublesome. What’s the point of writing if you’re using your position of power to ruin a guy’s life even further? False accusations are horrifying crimes because they’re so easy to commit, there’s little to no punishment for them, and they can follow someone around for life. Even better would be not to write about it at all; I personally don’t feel false accusations should get press, period, much less demands be made of the victim of a serious crime.

But that’s getting a bit personal for me. So let’s look at the worst problem of bias. The true victim.

Sony games.

Sony’s fanbase is incredibly devoted to the corporation, and they often get very upset when their games do not receive good scores. Consider, for instance, “9.3gate,” a case where Uncharted 2 received something less than a perfect 10. Uncharted 3 had its own reviewgate, when Eurogamer erroneously awarded with... I want to say an 8.5? And let’s not forget how Killzone 2, that bastion of gaming perfection, was sneered upon by Adam Sessler with a mere 4 out of 5. You could hear the bias against Sony in his voice when he gave the greatest first-person shooter ever made (until Sony’s next shooter, Resistance 2, which was better than Killzone 2 a)

I guess what I’m saying is, I disagree with you, Jason. The existence of review scores that don’t give Sony games perfect 100s is proof of this. Unfair bias exists in the industry, and the only way we can stamp it out is to give Sony fair—by which I mean perfect—scores or stamp out scores altogether and just tell everyone that all Sony games are perfect.

Death to review scores! Death to Microsoft!

But no, seriously. I do think there are cases where it’s possible to avoid preaching one’s perspective and simply report the facts as they are. In a game about bank robberies, I don’t want to read a missive on why bank robberies are bad, because I know bank robberies are bad, which is why I’m only robbing them in a video game. That sort of thing.