A common complaint about games journalism is one over the industry’s heavy reliance on press releases – information bulletins written by the publisher, developer or manufacturer to inform the press about something of note.
As part of our ongoing introspective look at ourselves and the internet as a whole, we discuss the importance of press releases, and their problems.
Here at PSLS we use press releases as sources for some of our articles – not all of them, but certainly a significant proportion. It’s part of our news process.
So I’ll start off with the obvious benefit of press releases – they’re a nice and simple way for companies to give us information, quickly telling us there’s a new trailer, that their game has sold a million, that they’re going to have a merger. Publications in all genres use press releases, perhaps from the police, perhaps from The White House, perhaps from Anonymous. There are some sites that claim they don’t use press releases, but that means they either end up not covering news – not informing you – or just sourcing from a site that did use the press release… which just defeats the point, and could lead to a watering down of information. It’s not feasible, or even logical, for every screenshot to have been dug up through a leak or secret source.
But there’s a downside to us getting the news straight from the horse’s mouth. The horse is biased.
Essentially, a press release is their way of getting free publicity, of showing off their products without having to buy any ads.
The other problem is that it’s ‘churnalism’. Sites often just reword (sometimes not even that) press releases and then publish as their own content. It’s uninspired, dull and lazy. The sites can rely on the traffic from these posts, and don’t really need to do much else in the way of features, interviews or reviews, continuing the stagnation of the industry. But, worst off all, it can end up pushing the press release’s agenda.
That’s where balance comes in. It’s our job to look at the press release and question it – Press Release: “Dead Island is officially a GOTY title, according to critics” Journalists: “Is it? Really? Oh wait, one publication gave it GOTY, but it generally had pretty average reviews, they’re trying to pull a fast one”. Press Release: “The PlayStation Move has sold 15 million units in only a short time” Journalists: “Ok, not bad. But how many users is that actually? And does it even matter when it’s clear there aren’t any games?”. Or a press release will try to take focus off of potentially negative news – BioWare Edmonton moving away from the Mass Effect series and giving it to a new team – by simultaneously, and prominently, mentioning that the game will use the Frostbite engine. Omg, think of the graphics.
We’re supposed to cut out the half-lies, the unnecessarily positive adjectives, the filler. We’re supposed to cut out the crap. Where possible, we’re supposed to provide context – how does this lineup compare to their competitor’s? Were they saying the same thing last month, or have they u-turned?
If not, we risk being seen as – or even becoming – little more than an unwitting shill.
Polygon faced this problem a couple of months back after they published an article on a Halo 4 avatar contest by Pizza Hut UK. With little background context, some readers felt that “this is disappointing to see as ‘news’ when it’s clearly a press release” or that it was advertising – some context: this wasn’t helped by the article’s proximity to Doritogate. The post was a bit dull and could have had more context, but it did at least inform UK players that there were some Halo avatars up for grabs. We asked Polygon’s Editor-in-Chief Chris Grant about his thoughts on the matter, but he was unable to comment due to time constraints after being contacted two weeks ago.
It’s a tricky situation – sites like Polygon are clearly leading the way when it comes to moving away from a dependence on press releases, or lack of context, but it’s incredibly easy to miss the mark. Alternatively, some posts may provide so much context, you’re left wondering what the actual news is. It’s a fine line that games media websites should endeavor to tread.
If we fall, let us know so that we can get back up.