Feature: Objectivity in Games Journalism

Objectivity in Journalism

Objectivity in journalism can be seen as being fair, being honest, being impartial, but also questioning and working to uncover the truth. When we think of investigative journalism, we often think of the plucky journalist on the hunt for the truth, to expose fraud and lies. For these reasons we hold objectivity up high within journalism and people can often believe something to be true because it has been printed. For that reason, media should be careful about what they print, they can be gatekeepers of knowledge and have a responsibility for what they report on.

However, can true objectivity really exist? We are all people with our own stories, background and tastes. We all have our own subjective perspective.

Cognitive Dissonance

What influences our own opinion? Our upbringing? Our peer groups? Our purchasing decisions? In psychology, there is a theory called Cognitive Dissonance. This basically means, that we want to feel we are right in how we behave, think and feel and we experience an unpleasant “dissonance” when thoughts and behaviours don’t match up. For example, if the thought is “I am clever with what I choose to buy”, then you buy a game that you don’t enjoy. That contradicts the belief, causing cognitive dissonance. To reduce this dissonance, you could alter the thought to “Actually, the game is alright” or use a get-out clause “it was over-hyped” (diverting fault). These are ways to continue to feel we are right in our actions and beliefs. Research has shown that we tend to rate products more positively after we have purchased them. This theory gives some insight into how we may struggle to be objective – because its hard to give credibility to something that doesn’t already fit within our belief / behaviours (even if it is right).

Can we really step outside of our subjectivity for the sake of games journalism? If you ask why someone chose to do that job / career, they would probably say because they have a passion for games, and within that they would have their own preferences as what games and systems they like to play. It’s impossible not to have a subjective perspective and to some extent, this would have an effect on how games journalists write. Of course, subjectivity unrestrained, results highly biased and sometimes misleading news and reviews – sometimes disguised as being objective.

This doesn’t mean that a level of subjectivity is a bad thing. To me, true objectivity would look like a fact sheet with no embellish or passion, no personality or real human emotion conveyed in the writing. It would make dry, monotone and boring reading. Subjectivity can inject some life into writing, but it’s important to keep it in check.

External factors are also an issue effecting games journalism. For gaming websites to thrive, they rely on advance copies of games, and other access to publishers. If you bite the hand that feeds you, you risk no longer getting this access.

The other aspect that plays a key role in a gaming website’s success, is visitor numbers (increasing advertiser revenue). To increase the number of visitors, many websites use “Link Bait”, these can be links that are vague but interesting enough to entice someone to click into the page. It may also be an article purposely antagonistic or controversial, to try and encourage people to read. Unfortunately, these are often survival tactics, particularly for established websites with ongoing staffing costs to cover.

Objectivity is not a black and white issue. True objectivity is near impossible to achieve. It then comes down to what values a gaming website or writer want to have. A website can be highly biased and they will find a similarly minded audience.  However, I think it’s important to be honest to your readers, not to pretend to be more objective than you are. You can be aware of what your biases are, but aim to try keep them in check.

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David Lee
David is the founder of Heart Gaming. Regular writer, reviewer and editor. Has a strong passion for gaming; particularly the Legend of Zelda series.