An Audit of The New York Times’ Coverage of Grand Theft Auto IV

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In spring of 2014, I conducted an audit of how The New York Times covered Grand Theft Auto IV as part of a paper I had to write on journalism ethics. The video above explains why this topic is relevant, and the paper I wrote can be found below.

Warning: heavy academic writing ahead!

ABSTRACT

After an analysis of three years worth of articles about a particular video game, I have concluded that The New York Times treats video games like a legitimate medium of artistic integrity. It does not trump up or sensationalize violence or controversy often associated with video games, but it does at times act like little more than PR representatives for the hegemonic powers that run the gaming industry, while failing to challenge any of the culturally established ideologies about gaming and gender. 

INTRODUCTION

This essay is an analysis of The New York Times‘ coverage of a video game franchise called Grand Theft Auto. More broadly, this essay will explore one example of how a large, mainstream news outlet covers something with niche appeal. An entire industry of news reporting exists to cover video games, the same way an industry of news reporting exists to cover other subjects like sports, fashion, music, science, politics, and a plethora of other broad topics. But as video games as an industry and a medium grow, they have to be occasionally covered by mainstream outlets like The New York Times.

Of course, The New York Times is not a gaming-focused publication, and does not cater exclusively to an audience of gamers. How The New York Times covers any video game might be noteworthy, but for the sake of making this research topic as interesting as possible, I have set out to analyze how The New York Times spent three years covering one of the most controversial video game franchises: Grand Theft Auto.

Grand Theft Auto is a series of video games set in cities intended to parody real-world locations in the United States. Players in Grand Theft Auto games can conduct any one of a number of criminal activities that they may please, including murder, drunk driving, soliciting prostitutes, using illegal drugs, torturing others, robbing banks, participating in gang violence, and the titular act of stealing vehicles, all played out with as much realism as the makers can achieve. Many video games contain graphic and often violent content, and many eclipse the violence played out in Grand Theft Auto games, but this particular series derives much of its controversy from its popularity. One Grand Theft Auto game, Grand Theft Auto IV, earned $310 million on its first day of release in 2008, making it not only the best selling video game in a single day at the time, but the best selling entertainment product of any kind.

This research paper will find that The New York Times placed a mild emphasis on the controversy surrounding Grand Theft Auto, but for the most part pushes a hegemonic ideology about the game that tailors it to specific genders and demographics when not acting as stenographers for gaming industry elites.

METHODOLOGY

In order to evaluate how The New York Times covers Grand Theft Auto, I implemented a textual and content analysis of articles from The New York Times‘ website (nytimes.com) that were about Grand Theft Auto.

Since Grand Theft Auto is a video game series that has existed for 17 years, and the most recent entry in the series was released in 2013, a narrowing of the spectrum of this topic had to take place.

News coverage of a particular video game over time follows roughly the same trend as news coverage for movies and other pieces of entertainment over time. Coverage begins at the first mention of the new piece of entertainment, generally peaks at around the time of release, and tapers off slowly beyond that. Keeping this in mind, all the news articles sampled from The New York Times’ website come from between the beginning of 2007 and the end of 2009, in the hopes of obtaining as much coverage about Grand Theft Auto IV as possible before and after its release on April 28, 2008. As a result, all articles analyzed in this essay appeared on The New York Times’ website between January 1, 2007 and December 31, 2009.

Because the name of this particular video game series is the same as the name of a particular crime, the search on nytimes.com included the word “Rockstar,” the name of the game’s developer since 2002. These criteria revealed 106 articles archived on nytimes.com. Of those 106 articles, many were excluded either because they were duplicated articles republished in different sections with altered headlines, or because they only mentioned Grand Theft Auto in passing. All of these specifications and disqualifications filtered the search down to 24 individual articles, every one of which was read and evaluated based on a number of criteria.

For the sake of clarity, this data set of 23 articles largely about Grand Theft Auto published by The New York Times between January 1, 2007 December 31, 2009 will be referred to for the remainder of this research paper as the “GTArticles” for short.

The GTArticles were all read in full so that each could be measured for several qualities. These qualities included:

The number of times crime or violence was mentioned per article.
The number of times controversy was mentioned in each article.
The number of sources used in each article.
The gender (male/female/not given) of each source.
What kind of source each source was (analyst, official, etc.).
The author of each article and their gender.

The bulk of this research paper will analyze this data with a variety of scholarly sources one step at a time, finished by an overarching conclusion about what information can be gleaned from the data and the scholarly sources together.

CRIME, VIOLENCE, and CONTROVERSY

Few will argue that Grand Theft Auto games are not violent. Stealing cars, robbing store clerks at gunpoint, getting into shootouts with police and other criminal activities are not only events that can be initiated by the players themselves, but are built into the missions and stories of every game. In one scenario, a player may hijack a vehicle on the highway by violently pulling the driver out of their car, then using the car to run several people over on the sidewalk before attracting the violent retaliation of police. In another particularly notorious scenario, players may have sex with a prostitute, pay her, then kill her to get their money back. All of this criminal activity in the games, combined with their popularity, have made Grand Theft Auto a textbook example of violence in video games and often the game most frequently brought up when the subject is discussed.

In spite of this reputation, the GTArticles reflected a moderate tone in regards to the violence and criminal activity in Grand Theft Auto games. While only six of the 23 GTArticles did not mention criminal activity or violence associated with Grand Theft Auto, overall mentions of violence or criminal activity in direct relation to the the games were lower than expected, at an average of 3.4 mentions of violence or crime per article. Eliminating the two outliers where violence and criminal activity were mentioned 13 times each, and the average drops to barely over 2.5 mentions of violence or crime per article.

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These references to crime and violence were more often than not casual in nature. “If you’re short on cash, you can mug a tourist in Times Square…” wrote one passage in an article by Jeff Vandam about the disappointment of some players that Grand Theft Auto IV‘s setting, which parodies New York City, does not include a rendition of Staten Island. “The point of the main plot is to guide Niko [Grand Theft Auto IV‘s protagonist] through the city’s criminal underworld,” wrote Seth Schiesel in his review of the game.

Indeed, the only time Grand Theft Auto as a franchise’s use of violence and criminal elements was actively questioned was in an article titled “New York in the Video-Game (sic) Mirror” written by Jennifer 8. Lee (the only female writer of all the GTArticels) on April 28, 2008, the day before Grand Theft Auto IV‘s release. In it, Lee spearheads her article with a jab at the inaccuracy of Grand Theft Auto IV‘s premise and portrayal of New York City:

“Auto grand larceny has dropped some 60 percent since Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took office, but that hasn’t dissuaded Rockstar Games from setting the latest iteration of its hit game series Grand Theft Auto in a dystopic vision of New York City over city officials’ protests.”

The rest of Lee’s article discusses the hard work of the game’s creators to recreate a parody version of New York City in their video game, and does not in any meaningful way question the game’s violence, criminal content, or controversy.

Controversy is also an aspect of Grand Theft Auto that The New York Times touches on very lightly, even with several GTArticles dedicated completely to an ongoing lawsuit over a previous game having explicit sexual content on it that players were not aware of when they originally purchased it. In all the GTArticles, controversy was mentioned a total of 22 times, less than once for every article when averaged out.

POPULARITY & FRAMING

While The GTArticles discussed the topic of violence, crime, and controversy only lightly, one word that frequently appeared next to either individual titles in the franchise or the franchise itself was “popular.” Mike Nizza introduced Grand Theft Auto IV in his article on March 14, 2008 as a “blockbuster,” Matt Richtel on August 3, 2007 described the Grand Theft Auto franchise as an “explosively popular series of racy games,” and Seth Schiesel on May 21, 2008 described Grand Theft Auto IV as “the acclaimed gangster fantasy that has become the fastest-selling game to date.” Again and again throughout the GTArticles, words of praise and emphasis of the game’s popularity is established and enforced, often as the first way to explain the game or game franchise.

This repeated emphasis on Grand Theft Auto‘s popularity frames all the articles around it, and subverts any challenge to that popularity. Through the use of nominals like “hit,” “blockbuster,” and “acclaimed,” The New York Times seeks to discredit any challenge to Grand Theft Auto‘s popularity and value as an intellectual property (Weathers 2007).

Perhaps no part of the GTArticles better illustrates The New York Times‘ framing of Grand Theft Auto as a popular and valuable franchise than a series of stories swept up in the sample that tells a story about one game company’s attempt to purchase another for the prized Grand Theft Auto game franchise. This revolves around The New York Times‘ reporting of Electronic Arts’ (EA) — a major gaming publisher — attempt to purchase another publisher, Take-Two Interactive (Take-Two) — another smaller gaming publisher — for $2 billion. Like many publishers in the gaming industry, Take-Two finances the development and production of a wide variety of games, and one of those games happens to be the Grand Theft Auto series.

In this series of stories, not only does The New York Times fall to the trappings of framing an issue as a conflict (Martin 1997) but also enforces Grand Theft Auto‘s popularity. Because EA’s attempted purchase of Take-Two takes place a few months before the release of the next Grand Theft Auto game in April of 2008, Grand Theft Auto itself is portrayed as some glorious prize to be won, fought over by two enormous companies. This perspective is best portrayed in a line in the lede written by Matt Richtel titled “Bid for Game Maker Seen as Effort to Buy Innovation” which after stating the typical cost of developing a single video game is $20 million, reads, “[Electronic Arts] wants to pay $2 billion for Take-Two Interactive, known primarily for one particular game, Grand Theft Auto.” Reading a passage like this is meant to give the reader the impression that Grand Theft Auto is not only a popular game franchise, but is valuable enough that one corporation is willing to purchase another just for Grand Theft Auto.

The rest of Richtel’s article mostly quotes an “industry analyst” and Take-Two’s executive director, which is only slightly different from the article preceding it, which largely just quoted Take-Two’s executive director and the CEO of EA. This highlights another interesting route The New York Times has taken with their reporting in the GTArticles: their repeated use of industry insiders, officials, and vaguely named sources.

SOURCES

In the 23 GTArticles, The New York Times‘ reporters quoted or referenced a total of 39 distinct sources. In my analysis, I found 31 of those sources to be industry insiders (media elites, companies, organization spokespersons, and vaguely-attributed analysts from “Wall Street” and the “gaming industry”) while the remaining 8 were not. Of the 31 official sources, 14 were directly related to companies in the gaming industry. Some official sources were also referenced in multiple articles, while no unofficial sources were referenced more than once. And of the seven most-frequently referenced sources, (only seven sources were referenced in more than one article) four of those were directly affiliated with Grand Theft Auto‘s makers or parent company.

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While it may seem natural to use the parent company of a game franchise as a primary source of information when writing stories specifically about the game in question, The New York Times is still in essence acting as a stenographer for the elites in power (Martin 2012) by repeatedly re-hashing quotes and information directly from them in their reporting. This enforces the status quo not only in the gaming industry, but in reporting on the dealings of large corporations. By acting as stenographers for corporate spokespersons and executives, The New York Times is enforcing the status quo where corporations are allowed to frame news events however they want (Brezina 2009).

Furthermore, the sources themselves were largely male. Whether this is a failing of The New York Times‘ inability to contact a broad variety of sources or indicative of the gaming industry being a male-dominated is not the subject of this research paper. Nonetheless, as it stands, of the 39 sources attributed to in the GTArticles, 21 were male, 2 were female, and 16 could not be assigned a gender (I decided to not assign a gender to companies or vaguely attributed sources like “trading partners” or “Wii fan”).

Sources

CONCLUSION

All of these sources, all of these narratives, and all of this framing gives the impression that The New York Time‘s coverage of Grand Theft Auto is shallow at best, and condescending at worst. These findings are consistent with a study on how The New York Times covered video games from 1980 to 2010 (McKernan 2013). In that study, McKernan found the New York Times has, in the 00’s, included video games in its Arts section to legitimize the medium as more than a novel hobby for social outcasts, and strongly distances it from earlier decades when video games were treated with distain and fear. In the research conducted of the GTArticles, The New York Times almost never sensationalized the levels of violence and controversy in video games, even around the time of release of a game as violent and controversial as Grand Theft Auto IV.

At the same time, while we can conclude The New York Times does not treat the Grand Theft Auto franchise as a frightening incarnation of pure violence and despair, it also commodities and trivializes it. Seth Schiesel’s review of the game, for instance, spends two paragraphs talking about little more than the variety of music one may listen to in the car radios in the game, while the series of stories about EA’s attempted acquisition of Take-Two treats Grand Theft Auto as some damsel in distress while giving plenty of speaking time to executives and spokespersons from both corporations. The New York Times finishes off that particular narrative by describing it as a “$2 billion hostile takeover bid for Take-Two.”

The New York Times‘ repeated use of male sources and overwhelming use of male writers also enforces the idea that video games and Grand Theft Auto in particular belong to the realm of men and boys (Beck 2009). Like when it acts as a stenographer for Take-Two and EA, The New York Times does nothing to challenge this status quo, preferring to fall back on cultural cognition. In the end, The New York Times‘ coverage of Grand Theft Auto remains bland: neither sensationalized nor dug deeply in to.

WORKS CITED

Weathers J. (2007). Privatizing Schools: The Struggle over How We Define Democracy and the Role of Public Institutions. University of Colorado-Colorado Springs.

Martin C., Oshagan H., (1997). Disciplining the Workforce: The News Media Frame a General Motors Plant Closing. Sage Publications.

Brezina T., Phipps H. (2009). False News Reports, Folk Devils, and the Role of Public Officials: Notes on the Social Construction of Law and Order in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.

Mckernan, B. (2013). The morality of Play: Video Game Coverage in The New York Times from 1980 to 2010. Sage Publications.

Beck, B. (2009). Something for the Boys: Iron Man, Transformers, and Grand Theft Auto IV. Multicultural Perspectives.

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