First off, I’d like to go on record as saying that I was a big ol’ geek long before I was a journalist, and I have the well-worn science fiction paperbacks, 1980s vintage D&D dice and former subscription to Starlog magazine to prove it.
But I sit here, at 46, as both (geek by birth, professional journalist since the age of 21), and from that somewhat odd point of view, I have to shake my head at the folks from Rhode Island Comic Con organization. Not only have you failed to understand what media coverage is all about, but you’ve also come off as little more that what those who mock you would cast you as: big crybabies.
Why the hubbub? It seems the people in charge of setting RICC’s press coverage policy forgot a couple of things. For instance, that we live in the United States of America, where a free and open exchange of ideas is held sacred, and a relatively unregulated press is part of that. They decided that as part of their press credential application, media organizations would have to promise to avoid “insulting or disrespectful comments and giving a bad image of the show.” As a result, the Rhode Island Press Association (indicated by the tweet above) has chosen not to cover the event rather than sign such an agreement.
When I put on my geek hat, I can totally understand where this is coming from. Depending on who gets assigned the story, newspaper columnists, reporters and TV correspondents usually go one of two ways with their coverage of sci-fi/fantasy cons.
If we’re lucky, they’re immensely cool, acknowledging the commitment, imagination and creativity of the deep fan base, the rise of the geek ethos to dominate business culture, and the fact that much of the entertainment economy now hinges on characters and creatures that were once the purview only of the disenfranchised and dorky.
The other way they go (and the one I suspect RICC fears) is to parachute in, smirk already on their faces, having feasted on a big bowl of Snark-Os for breakfast and proceed to act in the role of self-important arbiter of “true culture” and/or high school bully. “Look at the amazing costumes on these full-grown adults (who obviously have no lives)! Did your mom help you sew this (while you were indulging in some anime-fueled self gratification down in her basement)?” In a crowd of thousands, they manage to find the least socially adjusted, most awkward and perhaps a little frightening fans and hold them up as representations of what fandom is all about.
Really, I get it. I have seen the fear on fans’ faces when, in the course of covering WorldCon 2001 in Philadelphia as a freelancer, I would reveal to participants that I was a “mainstream” journalist. Mouths closed immediately. People turned away. Grown men told me I should be ashamed of myself, coming there to mock them and the things they loved. I would protest, insisting that I, too, was a fan and had no mockery in mind. But as long as I had that notebook in my hand and pen poised to write, I was considered the enemy. Still, others – mostly younger fans at the time – embraced me (literally and figuratively) and wanted desperately to tell me their stories. I considered it a privilege to share them.
When I put on my journalist hat, I see things from the other side, but not necessarily an evil side. Personally, my fandom would inform my coverage. Sadly, that’s not the case for many reporters stuck on a weekend shift and sent out by their city editors to find something – anything – interesting on what would typically be a slow news day. For the lazy (or, let’s face it, mean-spirited) media representative, the temptation to turn a sci-fi/fantasy con into a freak show for their viewing audience to laugh at is strong.
But what the RICC people who created this press policy need to remember is that in trying to avoid being stereotyped, they have turned around and stereotyped the entire media business as one that seeks to hurt them. And unfortunately, a large semi-public gathering of adults isn’t the same as a child’s birthday party, where the guest of honor can choose not to invite the bully from class. If you’re going to host your event in a big-city hotel ballroom or convention center, you’ve got to be ready for just about anyone (press included) to show up and say what they will.
What will likely happen is that when RICC takes place in November, they will find no local or regional news outlets have agreed to cover the event precisely because they reject having their editorial judgment dictated to them by the subject of a story. Very few things will piss a journalist off more than having a subject say, “This is how the story’s going to go. You disagree? You’re out.”
So instead of coverage that’s biased in favor of fandom, RICC will receive no coverage. Young kids growing up geek but not knowing where they can go to find their tribe will continue to wander in the wilderness because the story on the event in their local newspaper was never written. You, RICC, will have failed to utilize the potential to positively influence another generation of fans, who probably would have shown up next year even if you perceived the news story that did run as negative.
Look at your lives, members of the RICC committee. Were you mocked and made fun of at some point? Signs point to yes, because that’s happened to just about all of us who fall into sci-fi/fantasy fandom. Maybe you still feel the sting of those words today. But as my dad told me throughout the tough times of childhood, “It’s a character building experience.” Rather than cowering in a corner of your special place, you should be standing up to mockery and proudly letting your geek flags fly.
Barring the meanies from your clubhouse isn’t the right course of action. You who formed this policy were – I assume – doing so under the moniker of “public relations.” Apparently you forgot what that really means: engaging the public – and most often, the media – in a relationship on behalf of your organization. Making your event public to only those with whom you agree or who have promised they won’t be nasty to you works against that, and sets the tone for a very bad relationship down the road.