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The Westport Independent review: It's about ethics in journalism

Hayden Dingman | Jan. 25, 2016
But it's not exactly subtle.

The Westport Independent

The story goes that in the 1890s, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer led the United States of America to war—not as generals, nor presidents nor members of congress, but as newspaper owners. Hungry for ever-more-outrageous stories, the New York World and the New York Journal exaggerated and outright-fabricated stories of trouble and rebellion in Cuba until the US military was forced to intervene.

At least, that’s how the story goes. It’s a piece of history that's half-truth, half-apocryphal; a story to make Hearst or Pulitzer proud. But that anyone believes it—well, that speaks to the power wielded by the media, that people could believe a newspaper led the United States to war.

Americans have by-and-large lost faith in the fourth estate, though. That’s not to say you don’t trust any writers. (Selfishly, I of course hope you trust me, at least when it comes to talking about something as relatively unimportant as video games.) But on the whole, were I to ask you if you trusted “The Media,” chances are you would say no.

Too many mistakes. Too many hands caught in cookie jars. And while the stakes aren’t always as dire as the Spanish-American War, it’s nevertheless familiar. Hell, if you watched Making a Murderer over the holidays, you saw how media coverage can (fairly or unfairly) influence the criminal justice system. It’s a pervasive problem.

Pick up that can, citizen

All this to say, at first blush a game like The Westport Independent seems like a case of right place, right time. Described as a “censorship simulator,” you play the editor of an independent newspaper in an increasingly fascist country. Your job is to assign out articles to your writing staff, choosing not only what to cover but how something is covered.

The Westport Independent
(Click to expand)

The headline, for instance. Click once and “Man Attacks Police Officer” is replaced with “Man Defends Teenager, Police Officer Presses Charges.” Click again and it goes back. Those headlines are very different. Those stories are very different.

Once you’ve settled on a headline, you can then read through the accompanying block of text and choose to exclude certain paragraphs to bolster your point. In “Man Attacks Police Officer,” you’d probably want to leave out the part where the police officer tackled a teenager for mere graffiti. “Man Defends Teenager,” you probably want to play up the brutality.

Over the course of twelve “weeks” you’ll factor in a few more aspects too, like what story gets front-page coverage, what districts of the city you want to target for increased circulation, et cetera. But it’s the constant push-pull between supporting the government and supporting the rebel factions, of telling The Truth or “The Truth” that’s at the heart of The Westport Independent.

 

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