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Are We Journalists?

October 24, 2012 Written by Sebastian Moss

With the above image of Geoff Keighley despondently staring into a camera in an attempt to somehow make you want to drink Mountain Dew having hit the web, the age-old question of whether games journalists are ‘journalists’ has reared its head.

Eurogamer ran a piece on the image, talking about the link between some journalists and PR companies, and how that compromises their journalistic ethics. Leigh Alexander, a writer on sites like Edge, Gamasutra and Kotaku, then took things a step further and said that she doesn’t “generally consider myself colleagues with people that blog about trailers or that write scored reviews. It’s a different thing.” A whole host of journalists, critics and general Twitter pundits then joined in and began questioning whether those that write basic news stories are journalists, or something ‘lesser’.

So, What is Journalism Exactly?

An overused cliché in feature writing is to start with a dictionary definition of a single word that is thought to sum up the focal point of the piece. But to do that with ‘journalism’ would be flawed, because trying to define the term has been a struggle that many of the greatest writers, journalists and media figures have all tried to overcome, with each ending up with a different conclusion.

Perhaps, to truly understand what is meant by ‘journalism’, one must ‘begin at the beginning’ and come to terms with what was originally meant by the phrase. But therein lies another question – when did journalism begin? The act of spreading news – easily the most generally accepted facet of journalism – likely dates back to the dawn of language itself. When someone was engaged in the use of the world’s oldest profession, another person made sure to tell everyone what happened. From there, new methods of communication and improved transportation helped the spread of information all the more. Paintings portrayed battles and historical events, soldiers carried reports for their commanders, stories were written and songs were sung that both shared knowledge of key events and told of morals. The Age of Antiquity was not devoid of news, despite being devoid of journalists.

In the Middle Ages, improved literacy among the church allowed priest theologians to document their surroundings (Thomas Aquinas and Robert Grosseteste). 1086’s ‘Domesday Book’ was also a remarkable creation that could arguably now be described as real estate journalism, or even financial journalism.

But it was the end of the Late Middle Ages that truly brought change – Johannes Gutenberg, a German blacksmith and goldsmith, brought the printing press to Europe, leading to the Printing Revolution, which played a pivotal role in the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. There was finally a way to share information on a mass scale, and money could even be made from the process.

As the western world transitioned into the Early Modern Era, it made its first few tentative steps into printed news. Mercurius Gallobelgicus, thought to be the first printed periodical, released in 1594 and came out semi-annually. Then came Johann Carolus’ Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien (Account of all distinguished and commemorable news) in 1605, which is recognized by the World Association of Newspapers as the world’s first newspaper. England took another century to release its first newspaper, The Daily Courant, in 1702.

However, Germany’s 17th Century newspapers were still rather small scale, with the most popular form of mass available printed paper found in political pamphlets. The first evidence of this was in the English Civil War (1642–1651) where both Roundheads and Cavaliers used them to gain support with very biased texts and images. The French Revolution (1789–1799) was equally filled with pamphlets that did little to inform or be independent, which is crucial to understanding the term ‘journalism’ as the word is of French heritage (although it had not yet entered official cognizance at the time).

Pamphlet journalism was biased, openly wrong and bent purely on causing people to follow a political ideology – something the press’ detractors may humorously claim still hasn’t changed, but goes against Kovach and Rosenstiel’s 2001 definition that “Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth”.

Sadly, as much as early English newspapers might have wanted to be truthful and tell the public what was happening, severe legal restrictions from the government forced them to focus mainly on foreign news until the law was amended in 1765.

Newspapers changed, slowly becoming more like what we recognize today. The late Eric Hobsbawm believed the modern newspaper originated in France in 1836, where Emile Girardin’s La Presse was “political but cheap, aimed at the accumulation of advertising revenue, and made attractive to its readers by gossip, serial novels, and various other stunts. (French pioneering in these dubious fields is still recalled by the very words ‘journalism’ and ‘publicity’ in English…)”. (The Age of Revolution, 1996).

With literacy rates improving due to better schooling, newspapers boomed. Fleet Street changed from simply a road next to the now-underground River Fleet and became the personification of western print media. The era of the newspaper had dawned, circulation skyrocketed.

That era remained strong despite the arrival of radio and television in the 20th Century and is only now starting to wane, with the arrival of the free, fast, open internet. We face yet another transition in journalism, but the legacy of newspaper lives on even in its death – the same free speech laws newspapers fought for exist in digital media, and most sites adopt the same structure and style guides as newspapers. The essence of newspapers isn’t dead, it has just found a new home.

But does an understanding of the history of journalism help clearer understand its meaning? Author Raymond Williams believes so, with his book Keywords (1976) purely focused on the change in the meaning of words over time. Journalism has changed, how we absorb journalist’s output has changed, and how we view journalism has changed. The modern era birthed journalism, as it is generally accepted, and together they grew and evolved.

John Hartley went as far as to use modernity to define journalism, saying “so much a feature of modernity is journalism that it is easy to describe each in terms of the other – both journalism and modernity are products of European (and Euro-sourced) societies over the last three or four centuries… Both promote notions of freedom, progress and universal enlightenment, and are associated with the breaking down of traditional knowledges and hierarchies, and their replacement with abstract bonds of virtual communities which are linked by their media”. (Popular Reality: Journalism, Modernity and Popular Culture, 1996).

As noble as Hartley’s definition is, it serves to only define ‘hard journalism’ – what of a fashion periodical? The latest news on trendy hair styles does little to promote freedom or enlightenment, but it is still news. George Bernard Shaw, a noted Irish playwright and journalist, said that “newspapers are unable, seemingly to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization” and, in a way, he is right. News is simply the coverage of anything that is new, and while different publications may focus on different topics, as long as it is new it is news. David Randall summed up his thoughts in The Universal Journalist (2011), saying “A newspaper’s role is to find out fresh information on matters of public interest and to relay it as quickly and as accurately as possible to readers in an honest and balanced way. That’s it. It may do lots of other things, like telling them what it thinks about the latest movies, how to plant potatoes, what kind of day Taureans might have or why the government should resign. But without fresh information it will be merely a commentary on things already known. Interesting, perhaps, stimulating even; but comment is not news. Information is.”

But while the core act of gathering and spreading news is surely journalism, saying that commenting on news or events might not be is a matter of fierce debate. If a Times writer only does opinion pieces is he not a journalist? Or does it only count if the publication also covers news? It is unanswerable questions like these that help explain why journalism is such a hard word to define.

The sheer breadth of what journalism is, could be and might be, makes the task of defining it unfathomably difficult, almost impossible made all the harder by the fact that journalism is in a constant state of change. Yes, online is a big deal in distribution and monetization terms, shaking up business models that have existed for decades, but its biggest change is possibly how it empowers the ‘citizen journalist’. Anyone can start a blog, or even, with enough time, a fully-fledged website indistinguishable from those created by established brands. At what point does the site stop being a random person’s thoughts and become those of a journalist?

And even before the advent of the web, journalism has never been the same as it was the year before. Laws, cultural beliefs, wars, scandals, technology and business deals have ensured that journalism can never have a fixed definition.

What About Games Journalism?

As you can see, trying to define journalism as a whole is like trying to nail water to the wall. But the sharing of information that is new is clearly a strong part of it, so if a writer publishes an article on a new CoD trailer that you haven’t seen before, it’s new, it’s news. It might not be the most glamorous form of journalism, it might not topple corrupt governments or expose criminals, but it’s journalism. Sensationalism or simple, muted headlines an articles still fall under the wide umbrella of journalism.

In fact, it’s more questionable to define feature writers as journalists, you could say that they don’t always share new information, rather just their opinion. Comments that writers who don’t exclusively do features aren’t worthy of being considered a ‘colleague’ is also flawed. In every genre of news – politics, entertainment, sport etc – there is a mixture of both, and generally most journalists end up doing both.

There also seems to be a confusion over the fact that games journalists generally aren’t investigative journalists. Apparently, this means that they’re not journalists. Wrong, this means they’re not investigative journalists, hence that more specific definition existing. Covering what was said during the final Presidential debate requires no investigative skill, but it is still a form of journalism. Would we all love to see more investigative journalism? Of course! But that doesn’t take away from the fact that normal news coverage is still journalism.

If a writer covers news, without being paid by the company he is writing about, he is a journalist. Of course, if he is promoting the product, that is a cause for concern over conflicting interests. That’s why the UK’s National Union of Journalists states as one of their key points on their Code of Conduct:

Does not by way of statement, voice or appearance endorse by advertisement any commercial product or service save for the promotion of her/his own work or of the medium by which she/he is employed

Writers that adhere to that code of conduct are journalists. Of course, whether they are good journalists or not is an entirely different matter.

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