Thursday, March 31, 2005

Video game journalism hackery

Video game journalists are not known for having the highest of ethical standards. As one person in the industry told me recently, publicists at publishers generally take the attitude that if you send them free games and give them lots of food at events, they'll always swallow your spin and never print anything before you're ready to "announce." (Which means tell the world about something you've been doing for months or even years.)

But I recently noticed something what I consider to be a pretty disturbing breach of journalism ethics even coming from video game reporters.

As those of you in major cities might have noticed, Sony is buying up all the ad time on major stations in 5 big cities during drive time this week for "PSP Radio." Essentially, it's a fake radio show hosted by Carson Daly to promote the new Playstation Portable. Here in L.A. I have heard it on Indie 103.1 every night this week.

It's annoying to listen to a five minute long ad produce as a fake radio show, but whatever. That's the state of marketing. Mostly, Carson interviews game developers or celebrities about how great the PSP is and he repeatedly refers to it as "sick." Harmless stuff.

But on two separate occassions this week, I heard him talk to video game journalists. One was Geoff Keighley, a freelancer who writers for EW and Business 2.0 according to his website. The other was Dan Hsu, editor of Electronic Gaming Monthly. They were both interviewed by Carson about how awesome the PSP is.

Howzat? Journalists willingly appearing in an advertisement for a company they cover? How is this possibly ethical? Any journalist from Variety who was in an ad for a studio or network talking about how great their films or shows are would be fired, and rightfully so. Along the same lines, imagine if Bill Keller or Adam Nagourney of the New York Times (editor and political reporter, respectively) appeared in an ad for George W. Bush and then went back to covering politics. People would be outraged.

I should note that I have no reason to believe Keighley and Hsu weren't telling the truth in their interviews. From the limited time I got to check it out, the PSP does seem pretty dope. And I have no idea whether they were paid by Sony to do these interviews. (If they were, this goes from a serious appearance of impropriety to total impropriety; if not, then I think they were cheated.)

(Update 4/1: Hsu and Keighley have both since made clear that they were not compensated for doing the interview.)

I should also note that Keighley just wrote a story for Business 2.0 about the PSP and Hsu's publication has of course covered it extensively. So something definitely doesn't seem right here.

I know, I know, it's "just" video games. But people in the game world are always upset about that attitude and want it to be taken seriously as media and a business. One step along that road would be for journalists who cover video games to act like real journalists.

(Admission: I cover video games, amongst other things, for Variety and Daily Variety. Whether my journalism meets the standards I discuss here is of course for others to decide, but I can safely say I would never appear in an ad for Sony or any other game company, both because I would be fired and I prefer to be taken seriously as a journalist.)

Update 4/1: Dan Hsu has a thoughtful comment below that's worth reading. He indicates that he didn't know that the interview he was doing would be advertorial.
Since Carson Daly also hosts a regular radio program, I believe, it seems like a reasonable mistake to make.

It thus seems that the problem lies with Sony misleading the journalists they interviewed for their "PSP Radio" marketing campaign. If I were these guys, though, I would be pissed that Sony was making it appear that I was participating in advertising.


EGMshoe said...

Hi Ben,

This is Dan Hsu from Electronic Gaming Monthly. You make valid points, but I'd like to clarify some things. We were not pitched on doing an ad for Sony. We were pitched on doing a radio interview with Carson Daly for a PSP show that would be syndicated out to various stations. We were not compensated in the least, and we were not given a script or asked to say anything in particular...simply asked to give our honest opinions on the machine. I wouldn't say I was mislead...but to me, this was no different than the various other interviews I've done in the last two weeks on the PSP: USA Today, CNBC, ABC Radio, Canada's Business Report, Salt Lake City Tribune, etc. Yes, I knew the Carson Daly one would be more commercial (compared to, say, CNBC), but it didn't look like any sort of conflict of interest to me. And this PSP Radio had absolutely nothing to do with any recent PSP coverage we've done in EGM.

Regarding integrity, I take that seriously. Just to give you some examples, I didn’t accept the free HDTV that I won from Microsoft/Samsung from their giveaway contest at J Allard's keynote speech at GDC (don't know if you heard...they gave away 1000 HDTVs to people in attendance). Also, recently, a game company tried giving me a $400 gift certificate for helping them out in an outside-of-work charity event, and while this had nothing to do with EGM, I didn't accept it. I normally wouldn't feel the need to throw these out, but since you're making implications regarding my work ethic in a public forum, I had to say something. :)

Thanks for listening.

-Dan "Shoe" Hsu, Editor in Chief, Electronic Gaming Monthly

EGMshoe said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
EGMshoe said...

Hi again. Thanks for the update, but let me say exactly how I was pitched on this so it doesn't look like I'm hiding anything or blaming Sony (because it's not as though they mislead me, either).

Sony called me, asked if I wanted to go on the radio to be interviewed by Carson Daly about the PSP for something called the "PSP Radio," and I said sure. They didn't offer compensation (not that I could/would take it anyway) and they didn't ask me to say anything in particular -- just my own thoughts on the machine. When Carson interviewed me, it wasn't monitored by any Sony people...just an interview like I've done countless times before with mainstream media (I've actually interviewed with Daly years ago). I didn't have any reason to suspect anything, because often times, a mainstream outlet would contact a game company for suggestions on an "expert" to interview, and once in a while, those go to me. Not that I'm anything special or am particularly good at TV/radio (I'm not as good as Geoff)'s just that I've done it before and can (imo) offer a fair and unbiased opinion...and I know what I'm talking about (again, imo). :) More my position and title on EGM rather than any skill, probably.

If it was a straight-out advertisement, you're absolutely way I'd do that. But this didn't appear to me to be such a thing. It *is* something Sony asked me to do -- there's no denying that, but because it was an interview by a 3rd party, I thought it was fine. But I will admit your blog has made me question this, and I will be more careful in the future.

OK, enough yapping from me. Just something I take very seriously, is all. :)

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