Reporters not PR puppets

By Luke Wilusz

Video game journalism has, unfortunately, always been heavily influenced by PR representatives from game companies looking to manage the public image of their products. Every now and then, they do a particularly sloppy job of it, as was the case with Electronic Arts, a global games manufacturer, this past week. On Oct. 19, reported that EA representatives in Norway had been caught trying to pressure reviewers into giving the upcoming “Battlefield 3” positive reviews.

Some publications were denied review copies of the game altogether, while others were sent surveys questioning reviewers’ gaming habits, preferences and previous reviews of past games in the “Battlefield” series as well as of the “Call of Duty” series of its chief competitor, Activision. It seems as if they were trying to find out who was most likely to praise the new title and the series before providing any review copies.

While it is the PR people’s job to make their products look good to as many people as possible, putting this kind of direct pressure on journalists—and being so shamelessly blatant about it—crosses a line. It calls the integrity of the whole gaming press into question. Game journalists are forced to confront a constant dilemma—they have to rely on PR reps to gain access to the things they need to cover in order to serve their audience, while still trying to remain objective and independent in their coverage.

While reporters need to learn to work with the industry’s promotional machine, they should never place more value on that promotional access than they do on the interests of their readers.

They also shouldn’t let things like free trips to promotional events or the mountains of swag that marketers love to throw around influence their coverage in any way. Their job, at its core, is to provide people with a realistic and accurate idea of the quality of a product, and that should never be compromised in the interest of appeasing marketers and ensuring future access. One way to escape this undue pressure is to forego free review copies altogether and simply purchase games upon release to review them.

While it might delay the review process and prevent reviews from running the day a game is released, it would allow publications to run more honest critiques without fear of reprisals from developers.

Since it’s unlikely that marketers will ever stop trying to influence the press, it’s up to journalists to do everything in their power to resist that pressure and stay honest and reliable. Otherwise, their work wouldn’t even be worth reading.