On Tuesday, the videogame audience got its first look at the voice cast trailer for Mass Effect 3, and it was revealed to the world that Jessica Chobot, who is employed by IGN and G4 most notably as a video segment host, will be appearing as a character in the game.
I have to disclose up front that I write for G4 pretty regularly, so if I could fly back in time in Doctor Who’s TARDIS and eliminate this condition from the universe I’d step over my own mother to do so. I love meta conversations but this one has so many angles to it and they’re all frustrating, mostly because you need to know what our various roles are in videogame journalism, and stuff like this muddies the waters.
If our job is to keep developers and publishers honest by reporting the facts as we see them, and writing editorials to address the problems we bear witness to, your job is to keep us honest by calling out our bullshit when you see it. The members of our audience who are fair and equitable about doing so serve an honestly valuable purpose, but how we can expect that relationship to work when no one knows who is wearing which hats in the videogame journalism industry?
Chobot previewed Mass Effect 3 for G4 in a segment focused on Kinect functionality on January 18th. There was no disclaimer whatsoever that Chobot was in the game she was previewing. That’s a breach of ethics for a traditional journalist, and that preview segment could be fairly qualified as journalism. By comparison, when GameInformer’s Dan Ryckert appeared in L.A. Noire, as only a MotionScanned face in a crowd at a crime scene, mind you, he was no longer allowed to cover the game in any serious capacity. The entire affair was completely transparent, totally up front and therefore within the best practices of journalistic ethics.
I reached out to G4 for comment. I wanted to know when they were informed that Jessica Chobot had been cast in Mass Effect 3. I received this statement:
“Jessica Chobot, who is a popular gaming correspondent for multiple outlets including G4, reports on industry news and information as a correspondent for the network, a role that does not include game reviews. As you know, in order to present viewers with the best possible coverage, G4 works closely with videogame companies on a daily basis to get the latest news and previews on upcoming titles.”
I followed up by asking whether G4 knew, prior to the taping of Chobot’s preview of Mass Effect 3, that she had been cast in the game. We did not receive a reply by the time this column went to print.
If we categorize Chobot as a journalist, had she disclosed her involvement in Mass Effect 3 to her editors the moment the deal was made, that could have been disclosed in any and all coverage she was involved in regarding the game. In such a case there might not be any foul to be called. If Chobot failed to disclose her involvement in the game to G4 out of a desire to protect a marketing plan for Mass Effect 3, in other words to not break the news of her involvement in the game prior to the release of the voice cast trailer on Tuesday, that’s a legitimate cause for concern.
What if Chobot is just a video segment host and properly categorized as an entertainer, however? There’s an argument to be made that no potential for an ethical breech even existed in that case. She’d be understood as like an anchorperson on your local news or a talk show host. My problem with this situation is that Chobot could be either a videogame journalist or an entertainer depending on when you ask her what she’s doing, and when members of the game journalism establishment sit in rotating chairs it’s really difficult to enforce ethics.
I have every faith that dedicated members of our audience know the differences between reporters and columnists and video hosts, but casual audiences also need to be considered. The more popular videogames become, the more coverage from the enthusiast press is going to be widely read as the mainstream press certainly isn’t doing the job. This Bloomberg article has you and me buying $4800 60-inch LED televisions to play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. I worry about the person who isn’t familiar with the vagaries of videogame journalism and who just became aware of Jessica Chobot as a result of this incident and who sees someone who they think is supposed to be a game journalist appearing in a marketing campaign for a videogame.
I did not contact Electronic Arts or BioWare for comment because I don’t think they have anything to speak to. I don’t even think they had an obligation to ask whether this was a problem or not before casting Chobot. Electronic Arts and BioWare are in the business of making and selling video games and if they think casting Jessica Chobot is going to help sell copies of Mass Effect 3 that’s their business.
The lines between entertainer, personality and journalist are entirely unclear to the audience as a matter of course and this incident does not help things. An entertainer doesn’t report the news. They don’t even necessarily need to know much about the content they’re presenting. Their skill set lies in knowing how to present themselves in front of a camera and work in a broadcast environment. An entertainer would host the show that cuts to the journalist who conducts the interviews and provides the event coverage.
A personality is someone who comments on events or games, and is under no obligation to be objective though they may choose to be. A personality has to be truthful and factual to still be credible, but their job is to cast current events through their unique lens, which makes opinion part of the job description. To call them “biased” is to misunderstand their role and purpose.
A journalist is someone who reports the news. They have an obligation to resist bias and report the facts. They have to fact-check their information. They may investigate stories which necessitate sourcing their information. Journalists work under tighter strictures and have the ethical obligation to maintain their editorial integrity by not allowing publishers and developers to insert themselves into the editorial process.
It’s our job as members of the videogame journalism establishment to make sure you understand which role is which, because we often wear all of those different hats at different times. In an ideal world we’d all be dedicated to a single role, but I don’t think that’s practical. Hell, even within this column from week to week I switch roles. I try to make it clear what I’m about in a given column such that you know what to expect of me. If you’re going to fairly call us out, I want to make sure you’re calling us out on the right thing!
But no matter which of these hats a game journalist is wearing the one ethical responsibility all these roles have in common is not acting in the interests of a game developer or publisher over the interests of an outlet’s editorial integrity. I mean that with no disrespect or malice aforethought, but the line has to be drawn somewhere and that sounds like the fair place to draw it.
First Person is a weekly column by Boston, MA-based freelancer Dennis Scimeca. You can read some of his other musings on his blog punchingsnakes.com, or follow his random excitations on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.