Ethics 101: Question

Rllmuk are talking consumer journalist ethics again, regarding freebies spinning off an incident over at EG yesterday. Which wasn’t freebie related but – well – these things tend to spiral.

Anyway: it reminded me of a conversation I had with a table full of peers years ago. It involved a moral dilemma. I’d be interested to see what your response will be, so I pose it here.

You’re the editor of a videogames magazine. During the course of your job, you’ve been invited to the launch party of their new AAA game. The invitation is to you and your spouse, and takes place in an American city. You’ll be flown to the event, and your hotels paid for the couple of day’s stay. However, the invitation is only extended to editors who feature the game on their next issue’s cover.

The corrolary: You’re already sticking the game on the cover. This isn’t some no-bit thing, but one of the biggest games of the year and you’d be a fool NOT to give them the cover. In fact, it’s ace. Your writer his written the review, and he thinks it’s probably the Game of the Year. So you’re doing the cover anyway.

The question is: Do you go on the trip?

Show your workings.

EDIT: Question also being discussed here.

No, you stay here and fulfil your role as a sodding editor.

Editors jobs involve doing lots of meetings and stuff for the mag. Abstractly, this falls under that mandate.

Yeah, I prefered it when it was just sitting in a chair, commissioning articles and shouted at writers too.

KG

Networking isn’t an excuse for taking a bribe.

In this case, it actually a bribe?

(Note to crowd: Playing advocate here)

KG

If the cover feature’s already written, for good or ill, then I would have no problem with taking the freebie…although, as an aerophobic bachelor, I might do the decent thing and pass it on to a sub-editor in exchange for some minor favour, possibly involving a blind date with his blind sister. I wouldn’t be open to accusations of graft, then, would I? Also! The possibility for gossip exists, and people love them the goss.

If the feature is a couple of months away, of course, and it’s for a sub-standard game that isn’t worth a humourous spurn, then by crikey, fit sister be damned, I’d do the decent thing and turn it down.

Although…what does that open you up to in the future, eh?

//\Oo/\\

You could be quite subversive about it. As long as you have hard proof that you were going to put it on the cover before the bribe is even attempted, you could then ‘accept’ the bribe, go on the trip and write an article about it in next month’s edition. You get the free trip, and it looks like you went with the sole intention of exposing the corruption in videogames marketing (hell, maybe you actually did). You’re acting in the public interest – going on the trip was something you, as a crusader against dodgy publishers and journalists, had to do.

It is a bribe because you are being essentially paid for preferential coverage and advertising. The fact you were already going to sing the game’s praises based on its exemplary content is a moot point.

I disagree with Cac completely. The only moot point here is the stipulation that you must provide a cover, and it’s made moot by the stipulation already being satisfied prior to the offer. If you are already going to provide a cover then that’s that. The decision is made. Then an offer is made to you that you happen to be able to take advantage of, because of your already-made decision. You lose no integrity whatsoever in taking that offer (unless you’re on deadline and you leave your team in the shit, that is).

To turn it down to avoid people thinking less of you is weak. A professional, strong editor should have enough integrity to stand by his decision no matter what other people think.

Well, it would depend on whether I was a fresh-faced young buck filled with passion and love for the job or a wizened, cynical relic trying desperately to eke some fun out of the job before I inevitably have to start thinking about pursuing a “proper” career. Fresh-faced? No, for fear of the inevitable backlash from my peers. Hateful old swine? Yes, because would I give a rusty fuck about integrity? No.

People here seem to have a very poor memory, Driv3rgate wasn’t that long ago and it’s exactly because of those incidents that readers distrust modern gaming coverage. Integrity is important because without it you’re going to be out of a job.

Let’s be honest: if you turn down the ‘bribe’ and then STILL put the game on the cover (which you’re going to, right?), you come over as a bit of a twat.

If you’re going to turn it down, just give it to someone else, instead.

Cac, you’re deliberately ignoring the major point of all of this – KG is referring to a game that is already incredible and is already loved. Driv3r was a completely different affair. You are distorting the scenario to push a view that is simply not fair.

I think networking is important, so yes. Integrity is down to what you produce not who you have lunch with.

Accepting gratuities from thrid parties is always a dodgy area. It calls into question your impartiality. This sort of thing is not exclusive to the publishing world, it goes on everywhere. Any business that is try to sell to another business will try to schmooze its purchasing people in an attempt to gain orders. Lunches, freebies, trips etc. Many companies have a policy of flaty refusing any such offers for the express reason that it affects your judgement as to whether what you are buying is actually value for money. You become freindly with a rep, and all of the sudden you are loathe to stop doing business with him, regardless of value.
There is no difference to this in the situation you describe, regardless of whether the game in question is the best thing ever, attendance should not even be considered, if the publication hopes to retain an air of impartiality. If it is later found that the editor did go on an all expenses paid trip, then the impression is going to be one of a bought review – regardless of what the reality of the situation was.

Put it this way, if we found that an MP was pushing a certain company, and was later found to have been on an all expenses paid trip by that company, even though his reccomendation was made before any such trip took place, we would call for his head.

In the end, it depends on what is more important – A undoubtably fantastic all expenses paid trip, or the reputation of your publication

“The question is: Do you go on the trip?”

No, absolutely not. I can’t believe anyone would think otherwise.

First off, it’s a trip for you and your spouse. If your spouse isn’t an editor of a videogame magazine, that’s one ethical slip-up right there. While I have no problems with flying an editor around, extending the offer to people who aren’t directly involved in the creation of articles–or even employed by the publication–crosses a serious line.

Second, it’s a launch party. Unless you’re intending to cover the party editorially, why go at all? Networking? There are better ways to handle that part of the job. Fly out to visit the company a month later, and spend the day there talking to everyone. There’s your networking.

For me, it’s very simple: If I had to pay for the trip, would I go?

I doubt anyone would fly across the country or overseas to attend a party on their own buck; if it was for the article itself, however, I would.

Clearly you shouldn’t go on the trip.

I can’t believe you’re even asking the question, its not even a grey area.

However, you could print the invitation in your news section, point out that you didn’t go, and make anyone else who put the game on their cover and went to the party look like a corrupt bag of corrupt corruption.

Result!

(Moral high ground crumbles slightly)

I just like the word “moot”.

Moot moot moot.

Personally, i think it’d be fine to go, as long as i’d played the game and made up my own mind first. If there was a huge party going on for X game that i’d played and found mediocre, and Z game the same month that was ASTONISHING and far more deserving of the cover page, I wouldn’t go. You’re being paid to do good for your magazine, not free trips. However, if the game WAS good and deserving, and they offered you a free trip and you had nowt else to do, go along, put it in the mag, extra feature, nice stuff.

Can I take the trip and raffle it off in the next issue? That might shift some issues, and would feel above board to me.

– Why is the game on the cover?
– Because you can win a holiday to America to go to the launch party, whoop!

It becomes no different from any other competition mags run.

If I had to go on holiday I wouldn’t, because I’d feel like a corporate stooge.

Oh, yeah, show working.

I used to be a civil servant. The rule there was that you couldn’t accept anything much more lavish than a biro from anyone. This is of course how it should be if its your job to be impartial and represent the interests of a larger group.

Accepting any kind of freebie beneit is going to skew your judgement, whether it does so consciously or not.

Have a look at the psychology of gift giving. A gift implies an obligation to reciprocate, it attempts to bond the giver and receiver, it puts the receiver at a psychological disadvantage until balance is restored by a returned favour.

This will happen naturally, unless you put a serious amount of mental effort into resisting it, which again puts you at a disadvantage.

It depends on one’s personal ethic. Assuming one were a nihilist (“to hell with it, it’s only tv games and the sun’s going to explode one day anyway, so who gives a toss”), then just enjoy the ride.

Assuming that one took one’s journalism seriously, and wanted to feel incorruptible, then the solution is simple: assuming soul-searching had revealed that you had genuinely decided to put the game on the cover, and were not merely an unconscious victim of the insidious hype-fest, then continue to put the thing on the cover.

However, there is the principle of not only sinning, but being seen not to sin. As such, perhaps the editorial could say:

“XYZ Publisher flew us out to Blahtown to see this new game, on the condition we put it on the cover. Lucky for us, we’d already decided to put it on the cover” or some such.

There, the whole sordid thing is out in the open, you get to have your junket and you can feel safe in the knowledge that the junket had not affected you.

Of course, had you not wished to place the game on the cover, but wished to go on the junket, you could put the game on the cover and say “XYZ Publisher bribed us to put this game on the cover. Well done, them. It worked. Pity the game is crap”.

Again, it depends how seriously one takes one’s vocation.

Is the party a) during work hours, or b) a private holiday?

if b) then go

if a) then go only if the time spent travelling to and back from the event benefits your magazine more than anything else you could be doing. Otherwise you should be at work, you dont get paid for unbeneficial partying.

Stu W, that’s a pretty lousy view of work. I’m sure we didn’t create this civilisation to make ourselves unhappy slaves to it for the majority of our lives.

Or rather, we did, but we shouldn’t just accept the stupidity of our elders.

Your actions aren’t being dictated by the company, they’ve converged in a happy quirk of synnergy. Go on the trip.

If other companies percieve you as a soft touch, they will rapidly revise their opinions when you give them the righteous knockback.

Technically, there’s no ethical problem if it hasn’t caused you to change whatever you were going to do anyway.

That said, Nick’s right that you should probably declare the trip in an editorial note or something. Then again, they should probably do that in general.

My gut instinct says that if the people who’ve made the game are so talented that they produce this Game of the Year and they’re offering you a free trip on the basis that you do something they don’t need to ask you to do, then go. Like a lot of others, I say that if it was horribly piss-poor, generic, high production value crap, there would be an ethical dilemma. But in this case I don’t see a problem.

I’ve been a vague part of the “consumer journalist” scene for about five minutes, and already I’ve scored a free mouse, free t-shirt and free game.

Am I corrupt?

If not, does anyone have some swish parties I can attend?

I reasoned this out. I think you go.

You go because this is your get-out clause. I originally didn’t want to go, because it’d set a precedent for future trips, but then I realised: that’s the trick. I go on the press trip for Black because then, when I’m invited on a trip for Fifa Street 07, I can say “sorry, I’m a bit tied up”. If I turn down the trip for a game I’m going to like, when I say “sorry, I’m busy”, EA will say “if you don’t come on the Fifa Street gig, you can say goodbye to preview copies”.

So I use this as a bartering chip. This is me keeping in with the companies, showing I can play the game. It’s also brownie points so I can say “no” to stuff later, give out those 2/10s with impunity.

I’ll be honest in the issue and own up to the trip, of course, and explain that it’s irrelevant.

I do think the whole “spouse going too” thing is a little dubious, and specifically wouldn’t take anyone (bar another journo) with me.

I spoke about this to my girlfriend, and she said she wouldn’t go in this case – or if the game was a stinker – but she’d go if it was a passable game, something we could easily 7/10. She found the whole “it being awesome” thing would link too easily to the junket, wheras an average-good review for an average-good game wouldn’t be that suspicious.

To conclude: I don’t want to, but I’d rather go for this than be forced into something later.

You should go on the trip.

This is the games industry, not BBC News, and the magazines have ALWAYS been kids stuff designed for only three things. One, to advertise games. Two, to afford many ligging opportunities. Three, to aid the self-promotion of editors. That’s it.

Ask yourself whether you’b feel so constrained if you were the editor of Smash Hits, because Smash Hits is the level at which gaming mags operate.

The small exempts from this are magazines like Develop, who are unlikely to be invited anyway. Edge, because it’s the industry’s high-minded ideal-world magazine (basically the PR magazine of the industry) might also be considered a bit poor form if they took such a punt, but in real terms it’s unlikely to matter.

Save your integrity for an industry and fanbase that gives a shit, KG.

Kieron, was this question originally an ethical theoretical one? Or an actual incident? I only ask as I very, very recently happened to overhear a PR person brag about having concocted a vast and expensive holiday to be part of a cover deal for a review. And that similar shenanigans had secured multi-cover multi-page multi-magazine coverage for one of the biggest PC games of recent years. So my answer is that I don’t know if I’d take the trip, but I sure know that others purportedly have.

Hm. 26 replies, so I’m too late to the party.Problem solved.

But still. I agree/disagree with everything above, but in ways far less eloquent and articulate. Hell, I had to get a team of Albanian orphans to write this. I paid them in bread.

“Have a look at the psychology of gift giving. A gift implies an obligation to reciprocate, it attempts to bond the giver and receiver, it puts the receiver at a psychological disadvantage until balance is restored by a returned favour.”

I’ve wondered about this before, Andy, but I don’t think it applies. The gift giver is not a person – even if you know who’s responsible for deciding you should be invited, it’s not something of theirs that they’re giving, so you don’t feel indentured to them. A company doesn’t evoke the same emotional responses as a person. I’d happily steal from Nestle if I had a reason to, but I wouldn’t steal the Managing Director’s pen even if I really needed it.

I second Stu’s view that if it’s during work time, it’s hard the networking potential could outweigh the huge chunk of time it’d take out of your schedule, which as I understand it is rarely slack. And if it’s not, it’s a different ethical question – should you enjoy yourself at the mag’s expense? No. Games journalists, particularly myself, are already getting way more than their fair share of enjoyment from their jobs. The response should be to take doing them well extremely seriously.

That said, I think if you as a reader don’t trust the mag’s writers not to change their opinion of a game based on the freebies they get, you don’t really trust them at all. It’s really not hard to separate the comfiness of the hotel bed from the quality of the game. The degree of incompetence it would take to confuse the two is more troubling than the idea of corruption.

As for the appearence of corruption, if the game’s as big as the question stipulates, it’s going to be pretty obvious to your readers that you would have put it on the cover anyway.

Cacophanus, if the trip was to go and meet one of your idols in Japan, you would be on that plane like a fucking shot. The truth is, you work as a games tester, not a magazine editor, so you are in no position to comment on something like this. (Not even considering your penchant for telling lies).

If you’re a good editor you’d go, secure a nice fat advertising deal, exclusive to the next big game release, a competition, previews, possibly some free drugs and have a fun trip. Its business, this is a large player in the market you’d be a fool and irresponsible not go and represent your magazine, because if you don’t someone else will.

The psychology of gift giving is based on societal pressure. As such, it can be broken or ignored. Reciprocation is not inherent to the act of receiving a gift. You’re not necessarily expected – and not everyone would feel obliged – to return the favour. So I’m not sure that the argument stands up.

The problem with this particular scenario is that the obligation isn’t unspoken. They’re not relying on you being subconciously swayed or feeling obliged. You’re being invited to the party on the specific condition that you put the game on the cover of your magazine. Even if you WERE going to put it on there already, I’d say it’s unethical to attend the party anyway.

Why? Because you’re benefiting from the loose ethics of others.

Say a police officer was taking backhanders from the criminal element. Even if he didn’t sway from the law and still pursued those criminals as per usual, he’s STILL taking the money and STILL benefiting from the shady deal. And the deal *itself* is shady, and any contact with it lowers your opportunities for moral superiority.

And moral superiority is the win.

Or, to take the most extreme, silly, tenuous analogy I can think of: say you knew a person was going to die of cancer within a few weeks. Then say you took money from someone else to kill that cancer patient, knowing that you wouldn’t actually have to do anything other than wait.

Even though you didn’t actually act on the bribe, and even though the cancer patient was going to die anyway, taking the money is still unethical.

But I’d go to the party if the explicit condition was removed. Lester Bangs partied with the bands; it didn’t mean he was in their pocket.

Tom Camfield – i was merely stating the business ethos.

If youre employed as an editor by a magazine and you do something in work time then it should be to the benefit of your company.

If it were a one night party engagement, then no problem. But to take you out of the workplace for several days then you need a good reason.

That rather assumes such niceties as them paying you a decent wage, obeying employment laws, not forcing you to work tens of hours of unpaid overtime, etc.

“The small exempts from this are magazines like Develop…Edge”

Heh. That might explain my position then, as that’s pretty much my writing CV.

Tom, I’d suggest that the gift giver will be personified by the PR rep of that company, who may not hesitate to remind you of the trip (and thus your supposed obligation to reciprocate) in face-to-face discussions.

Same to Graham. You’d have to rely on the PR not applying societal pressure, which if it was a deliberate tactic, I’m sure they would.

I’m not sure about getting on a moral high horse and saying that I don’t think ANYONE should take the trip you describe – but looking at it as described in your example, no, I wouldn’t go. The fact that there’s clearly no editorial value to it (you don’t mention any opportunity to, say, interview the development team) and that a spouse is invited as well would sit badly with me.

I’ve accepted trips all over the world as a games journalist, but never any which I wouldn’t get a number of decent feature articles and/or news stories out of – be that from seeing new products, interviewing key staff or execs, touring dev studios… I’m also far more comfortable with doing that sort of trip now that I don’t actually review games very often any more, and back when I used to, I’d often write a preview based on what I saw on the trip but demand that someone else did the review since, having been out on the lash with the team behind the game, I felt unable to write honestly about their baby.

The kind of trip you describe is stepping over the boundary that’s meant to exist between journalists and those they write about. It’s a PR “hey, you’re our journalist friend, come have fun with us!” trip. PR people aren’t your friends. Some of them, for all the shit they get, are great people, but if you’re a journalist who actually cares about what he does (and sure, many journalists don’t), they’re not your mates and you shouldn’t be popping off on holiday with them with the wife – it’s that simple.

Do I go?

If it’s on the cover anyway, does it matter? Yes I’d go, and no I wouldn’t. If you know that your coverage won’t be tainted then go for it. It’s fairly unlikely Joe Public will find out, so it’s perhaps only your peers that going on the trip will reflect badly upon.

But sod them. If you’ve got the time and want to go.. why not?

Easy answer. You blogged the dilemma, so its not a simple query in your head. So the answer is a set in stone NO.