To paraphrase the character of Ricky Ricardo from "I Love Lucy," EA and G4 TV have "some 'splaining to do."
Yesterday morning, EA sent out a press release announcing the voice actors cast for Mass Effect 3. While most of the names are returning actors, there was one new addition that should stand out for anyone in the gaming industry. It was revealed that G4 TV correspondent Jessica Chobot is lending her voice and likeness to the character of Diana Allers, a reporter in Mass Effect 3.
While this is no doubt great news for Chobot, as she's getting a chance to contribute to a top-tier video game from one of her favorite developers, the way the announcement was handled presents a bit of an ethical quandary for both EA and G4 TV.
Because a mere two weeks ago, G4 TV had Chobot previewing Mass Effect 3 in her capacity as a journalist.
No matter how you slice it, this looks bad.
Character modeling and voice acting is something that takes a lot longer than two weeks, and according to Chobot herself, it's been in the works for a long time. This wouldn't have been a decision that was made overnight. Typically, the voice actor records his or her lines early on, and then the character modelers work on developing the animation. The animation can be wholly original, but more often than not is based on reference video of the voice actor.
The content and timing of PR plans for top-tier games involve similar, if not longer, timelines and are typically decided months in advance. This is done to ensure maximum exposure for the game in question, with little tidbits of news hitting at regular intervals. Whether it's the announcement of the voice cast, information about a demo or simply a batch of screenshots, the news is rarely accidental. It's carefully managed.
Knowing all this and knowing that EA has an extremely polished PR team, it is surprising that it would have even allowed Chobot to preview the game as a member of the press. The team had to have known Chobot had worked on the game when she walked into the demo suite with a G4 TV camera crew. While they may have wanted to keep the news of her involvement under wraps until the designated time, allowing G4 TV to film makes it look like EA's PR team had no issue with presenting someone who worked on Mass Effect 3 as an unbiased journalist reporting on the game.
This just screams "conflict of interest."
There is also an issue with the G4 TV side of the fence. Nearly all journalistic outlets have fairly strict ethical codes regarding what can and cannot be done by reporters working for the company. If G4 TV does not have any such rules, the big question is, "Why not?" If it does have such rules, then who dropped the ball?
G4 TV ran a promotional trailer provided by EA yesterday morning, which featured Chobot and the other voice actors talking about Mass Effect 3. That was followed up by a short G4 TV interview with Chobot that afternoon, but neither piece addressed the perceived conflict of interest.
To her credit, Chobot briefly mentioned the issue on Twitter yesterday, stating that she would not be reviewing the game for any outlet. That's a great start, but it's only a start. Both EA and G4 TV need to come forth with statements on the matter, and G4 TV needs to ensure that a similar situation can never happen again.
We did reach out to EA's internal PR team, EA's external PR team working on Mass Effect 3 (47 Communications), and G4 TV's PR team yesterday via e-mail with request for comment. As of last night, none of them had replied.
One of the first things you learn in journalism school is that when it comes to your reputation as a reporter and the reputation of your outlet, the truth does not matter. For better or for worse, perception is reality, and as such, any situation resembling a conflict of interest needs to be avoided.
In this case, that could have easily been done either by having G4 TV assign another reporter to cover Mass Effect 3 or by going the route of full disclosure and having Chobot let viewers know of her involvement with the game from the very start. The former would have kept any questions at bay, while the latter would have ensured viewers were always fully informed. It might have even provided an interesting angle, with Chobot going into detail about the creative process since she was right in the thick of it.
As it is, neither of those paths was chosen, and the current perception is that of a huge conflict of interest on the part of both EA and G4 TV. Here's hoping they can take the time to clear it up.
More articles about Mass Effect 3