Lately, I’ve noticed a trend within some critical circles. This trend suggests that if you are reviewing a given thing (book, movie, game, CD, graphic novel, adult novelty) you need to disclose that you were given said thing as a gratis review copy. When I did some asking around, nobody could give me a justification that seemed to match the magnitude of the “Thou Shalt Disclose” commandment. Therefore, I would offer the following thought to the critics of the world.
You don’t need to disclose if you got something for “free”, it’s part of the job.
Go ahead and look at any of Roger Ebert’s reviews, or scan through a game review on Kotaku or Game Informer. You won’t find those critics marring their prose with a gaudy “we got this for free” disclaimer. If the professionals don’t do this, why should the rest of us take up an action that would brand us as rank amateurs in the eyes of our readers and our betters?
In combating this cult of disclosure, perhaps we as critics need to do more to end the myth that we get things for “free”. Forgive me for invoking the ghost of Heinlein when I say this, but there is no such thing as a free lunch. When an organization gives something to a critic, it’s not a present, it’s an investment. Said investment only pays dividends when/if a critic produces a positive review, which, theoretically, yields greater sales and exposure. More importantly to the critical process, the no cost review copy is the best way to make sure a critic isn’t letting a financial bias influence their review.
I know that I have, from time to time, reviewed things that I paid for out of pocket. I suspect other critics have done it too, as few of us get into this game with corporate sponsorship from day one. The most important thing to note here is that no cost access to the subject under review buttresses professional detachment between critic and object. Once coin is parted from hand, that relationship begins to crumble. In a worst case scenario, the critical voice is all but lost in a sea of consumer outrage. I made this mistake with one particular game review (no, I won’t tell you which one, but I’ve left it up on the website as a lesson to myself.) I doubt that the bottom line of my review would have changed if I evaluated the game off a review copy, but my piss and vinegar outrage probably would have been a little more subdued. In short, it’s hard to be objective if a person feels that they have been ripped off.
Therefore, the question should be one of what is gained from expecting critics to disclose the origins of their review. To those who think it adds a measure of transparency to a critic’s words, I would say that a critic who gets paid to say nice things about shitty products is not going to feel any compunction about sticking in a line to appear on the up and up. How can disclosure do anything to curb the actions of those mercenary critics? Given the way a critic should operate, at least under ideal conditions, foisting an expectation of disclosure upon them feels like a counter-intuitive effort to codify amateurism.