Why does a geek journalist write about things that they don’t like?
The answer to that is simple, but it requires having a solid definition of the demands of a journalist covering geeky topics, and judging from the “New Geeky Journalism” panel at 2015’s New York Comic Con, that definition is amorphous and ever-changing.
Journalism is a catch-all term that encompasses many different types of writing, as well as different methods of work. Perhaps the most straightforward type is news reporting; the kind of informational, fact-checked, and un-opinionated snippets and interviews that are assembled by panelists like Abraham Riesman, an editor for New York Magazine’s Vulture outlet who specializes in breaking comic book industry news. The term “breaking” is key here, because folks like Riesman, and his fellow panelist Kevin P. Sullivan of Entertainment Weekly, work to bring developments in geek culture out of the minds of creators, or out of the ledgers of media companies, and into the world at large. Riesman in particular expressed a potent heavenward fist-shaking during the panel as he related being scooped on the recent news that cultural commenter, writer, and columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates had been selected by Marvel Comics to helm their new Black Panther title. Riesman should have known about this development, right? He has contacts in the comics company—editors, publicists, and fellow comic book writers—whom he talks to regularly. But so do other news reporters, and in this case one of them dug up the news before Riesman could. This process is intrinsic to news reporting: a reporter cultivates their sources and from those sources come the un-opinionated articles to which the rest of us react. News reporting doesn’t create the event, but they do create the initial awareness of that event.
The boundary between news reporting and commentary on geek culture can be extremely fuzzy. Readers and viewers are accustomed to receiving news with some type of commentary, not only in geek culture, but on network television, in newspapers, and through social media and online re-aggregators. Even if the writer themselves offers no commentary, there is usually a comment thread that accompanies a news piece introducing an angle or a slant to the news. In some cases, particularly through social media, a reader gets the reaction to a story before they can read the news that inspired the reaction.
Panelist and Tor.com’s own Emily Asher-Perrin’s writing style is cultivated and comfortable within this fuzzy boundary. “I only write about my feelings!” she expressed when asked about the dichotomy of reporting on shows or culture events that a writer doesn’t personally like. “Often that can come off as hostile, because I’m speaking to people, to a person, and if a reader doesn’t agree with my feelings then they feel like they’re being personally attacked.” It can be especially jarring for a reader accustomed to news reporting, as opposed to commentary. Suddenly the lens of a story isn’t focused on the world, but on the reader themselves.
So what’s the use of opinion, then? Panelist and author Genevieve Valentine, a contributor for io9 and The Onion’s AV Club, explained the opportunity present in geek commentary. “This culture tells us who we are, and these stories reflect our world, and it’s important that we point out where those stories fall down or don’t work.” Panelist Jill Pantozzi, famously of The Mary Sue, concurred, “We’re writing about geek stuff that we love, or don’t love, but we’re also writing about people’s lives, and that naturally includes issues such as diversity.” Commentary in this regard, although personal and often anecdotal, provides an interesting parallel with news reporting. While news reporting is focused on factual truths, commentary has the opportunity to focus on emotional and societal truths. Those truths, whether factual or emotional, go through constant evolution and as geek journalism matures, it has been increasingly focused on chronicling that evolution.
Constant change generates confusion, and as the panel continued it became clear that geek journalism is encountering a stigma in recent years as a result of that confusion. Some readers question the validity of writers talking about larger issues within the context of something that is expected to be benign, like a TV review. Valentine, who reviews and recaps television for The AV Club, is all too aware of that. “There are a lot of people who want to enjoy what they like and not think about it too deeply. But one of the things you have to do as a journalist is apply a rubric to a show—a theoretical state of perfection that the show could achieve—so you can examine whether the show is or is not meeting that. And a LOT of people don’t want you to do that!”
The expectation that TV reviewers shouldn’t challenge the shows they review is a common criticism that many of the writers on the Geek Journalism panel have encountered, a criticism that they have found baffling. Pantozzi spoke about her time reviewing Doctor Who for The Mary Sue and getting repeated comments on why she was writing about the show when she didn’t like aspects of it. The Mary Sue’s reviewer of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. encountered the same question from readers.
This resonated heavily with me, as Tor.com’s long-time reviewer of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.—you can peruse the comment threads on my coverage right this moment to find readers asking me the same question that the New Geeky Journalism panelists receive: Why are you writing about something that you don’t like?
The answer is simple: Because it’s my job. But that raises the question: What IS my job? Am I news reporter? Do I write about my feelings, like Emily? Am I a feature writer? Or am I an opinion columnist? Really, I’m all of these, because that’s what Tor.com as a publication dictates. It reports news on the sci-fi/fantasy book industry, but it also presents feature and opinion articles from authors and other writers (like the Five Books series, or Emily’s articles). TV and movie and book reviews fall somewhere in between, in that they report an event but also offer an opinion on it. But, as the panelists pointed out, that opinion is on something that other people really LOVE, and a reader can view a negative opinion as hostile since it reverberates so closely with their own feelings.
But is an opinion-less review really what readers want? Or as Pantozzi responded, “Just a puff piece? The reader can write that themselves.” This response gets to the core of what the job of a geek journalist is: to report news and to offer a deep consideration of geek culture that resonates with the lives of those who enjoy that culture. For example, I could write straight recaps of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but does that really offer a reader anything valuable? A reader interested in the show has presumably already watched that show, so repeating information they already have wastes the time of the reader AND the journalist. It asks for attention but offers nothing in return.
The writers on the panel (and me, for that matter) prefer not to do that, but this reality conflicts with the current stigma that geek journalists can ONLY be interested in pop culture, or can ONLY be vacantly complimentary about that culture. In fact, as Entertainment Weekly’s Kevin P. Sullivan pointed out, “When you investigate something, you start to see the human element within it, and it becomes hard to truly HATE something, like the Star Wars prequels, once you get to know the people who work on it. I don’t want to really speak in absolutes here, but you become more forgiving of a bad piece of art, because you know there’s a person not that different from you who put everything of themselves into it.” Ironically, digging deeper into a subject can lead to a much more even and balanced understanding of that subject. Sullivan pointed out a Roger Ebert quote that has always stuck with him as a journalist:
Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.
This is a liberalizing influence on me. It gives me a broader mind. It helps me to join my family of men and women on this planet. It helps me to identify with them, so I’m not just stuck being myself, day after day.
The New Geeky Journalism seems to be taking this sentiment very much to heart.
- Moderator Ryan Britt and Genevieve Valentine got into a funny discussion of Jurassic World. Turns out Ryan saw it as “real dinosaurs destroying fake dinosaurs” or, in a larger sense, “real nostalgia destroying fake nostalgia.”
- When describing recent news that surprised them, Pantozzi referenced the outcry over Charlize Theron’s role in Mad Max Fury Road. “It was surprising to see that this was even a thing to argue about.”
- An audience member asked how to break into freelance geek journalism, or staff writing for a geek publication. Essentially: Have very specific pitches that say something new or interesting about a beat that the publication already covers. Get as thick a skin as possible because you’re going to hear lots of no before you hear a yes. Keep reading, because it will sharpen your writing. And finally, utilize other skills you may have, like production-related skills, that an outlet is looking to hire. It is a lot easier to write for an outlet when you already contribute to it in another manner. (From a personal standpoint, all of this advice is 100% true.)
- When writing a piece: You have to do the research. For a news report especially you have to talk to people and interview sources. But that’s okay. Because it turns out research is a lot of fun, and opens up other opportunities for a writer.
- Genevieve Valentine had an amazing piece of advice for getting published online and receiving terrible comments: “You can’t improve a relationship that doesn’t exist.” In essence, someone commenting by calling you a name or threatening you isn’t someone who intends on creating an honest exchange with you. So spend your time on honest exchanges.
Chris Lough writes a lot for Tor.com, because who wouldn’t?