Sunday, September 13, 2009

What is wrong with playing up close?

I should preface this post by saying that I have just watched a so-so doco about gamers and their problems named 'Second Skin', but I do recommend checking it out if you're a gamer in search of a doco which doesn't condescend. Watching this construction about gaming and gamers, I started to realise that I wasn't a gamer simply because I have always looked at the subculture of gaming at an arms-length - just as this doco does.

Even though I have written for gaming sites such as The Escapist, I don't consider myself to be a gamer. Having an artsy-fartsy background (I have a 16,000 dollar arts degree) I tend to be engaged with the world of videogames from an arms length intellectual curiosity standpoint rather than being a hardcore WoW grinder.

That being said of course, I certainly don't consider myself to be a casual gamer who only surfaces for air when it comes to a latest release of Bejewelled or Peggle. From this curious distance, I can view the subculture of gaming from a stance which allows me to take in a broader view of said culture. This becomes an ethical consideration from which all journalists can learn.

It is a widely held tenant of journalistic integrity that the best sort of journalism is the 'why'-school of journalism. The type of journalism that tells you not only that there's been a terrorist attack in Mumbai, but the type of journalism which sheds light on the political instability and corruption which gives rise to these acts of terrorism in surrounding regions. It's the type of journalism which doesn't just look at surface facts but goes deeper in search of reasons.

But how does one go deeper in searching for those reasons without becoming so attached to the subject matter that it becomes a risk of becoming unbalanced? More to the point, can you ever produce quality journalism without being totally biased?

The problem is that journalism is a medium wherein truth is filtered through conventions such as narrative and scoop. No news story is simple and unequivocal truth, it's the same principle as documentary suscribes to (you see what I did there?). In short, there's a reason they're called news stories.

I can rant all night about narrative constructions and how we're programmed to see things through binary oppositions and what have you, but I'm not going to bore you with a 10,000 word thesis. Instead, I'm going to attempt to condense my argument in a pleasing and coherent fashion using words and a train of logic (you see what I did there?).

Think about the truth of your life. Your actual reality. You just live your life and try not to think about all this stuff too deeply. Now, how would that reality look if produced for the 10PM news bulletin? How would that reality look if up on the silver screen? Heaven forbid, how would that reality look if the fat guy from Michigan got his hands on it?

All of a sudden, you uniterrupted reality would have been put through a wringer of narrative and convention until it looked like something very, very different. Your overbearing landlord may become the bad guy on your noble quest toward financial freedom, your boss the villain in the piece. Sure, this logic may apply to more artistic mediums such as documentary but how does it apply to journalism?

The example I always use to explain narrative's role in journalism is a week of question time. For those of you who have watched a session of question time in it's entirety, you'd know that it's mostly a dull affair with prepared questions answered for maximum political gain. All the answers are fashioned as such that the speeches being made contain no less than buzzwords, key phrases and policy spin. Why?

Because only 60 seconds of the best jabs of the day make it onto the evening news (if that...god help them if there's a kitty stuck in a drain) wherein an entire day's policy debate is condensed into "oh no he didn't!". So, is it our goal as working journalists to reflect the reality of any given situation?


Think back to my Mumbai example earlier. How does one go about explaining the why of the situation? How does one explain the why of the terrorists' actions? One would assume you ask them questions. Questions after all are our tools of trade (unless you're from News of the World then it's hidden cameras), and at the end of the day it's all we really have to solicit answers from people.

Of course, the flaw in that plan is that terrorists generally don't talk to western journo's all that often, unless to tell them to get into the van. So, what do you have instead? You have talking heads telling the journo how the terrorist's operate (hint: the people talking to the journo's generally aren't associated with the terror groups). So in fact, for all the hard work on the journos part, by the time you've filtered these opinions through the narrative machine and come up with binary oppositions such as 'terrorist BAD, democracy GOOD' and all that jazz, your report to find the why becomes just another story with the tagline 'reporting from Mumbai'.

So, for all my jumled mess of words are we any closer to an answer about objectivity? No, my words are just filling space. There's your moment of journalistic downer-zen for the night.

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