Lessons from journalism on the big screen

Credit: E Vön Zita

By Andrew Gibson

Movies are meant to entertain. Journalism’s duty is to inform. So, when you look to Hollywood for an accurate portrayal of a newsroom, you should take it with a grain of salt.

But the best journalism films move beyond shallow thrills and sensationalist scandals to underscore the truths of the industry.

Here’s what you can learn from three of the best flicks in the genre (spoiler alert).

All the President’s Men (1976)

IMDb: 8.0 out of 10
Rotten Tomatoes: 89 percent audience rating

I wasn’t around in the 1970s, but watching Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) of The Washington Post bust the Watergate scandal somehow makes me feel nostalgic for typewriter journalism.

Some have worried that Google searches and tweets are making reporters lazy to the point where they don’t even have to leave their desks. This, of course, is open for debate. But journalists — digital age or not — should take note of the rigorous reporting that linked former-President Nixon to Watergate. “All the President’s Men” showcases these techniques.

Verify

Bernstein and Woodward at one point in the movie weigh whether journalists can rely on logic to connect the dots of a story if they haven’t received explicit confirmation. If you go to sleep, wake up the next morning and see snow on the ground that wasn’t there the night before, doesn’t that mean it snowed? Woodward says no, countering with a different hypothetical: If a man asks for your address, is he interrogating you, or is he lost?

Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post executive editor played by Jason Robards, pushes Woodward and Bernstein throughout the movie to find more sources. In fact, he rejects the first version of the story, which Bernstein thought was front-page caliber, because it lacked “hard information.”

True, many editors probably aren’t as demanding as Robards’ portrayal of Bradlee. But that’s all the more reason for journalists to adopt their own careful verification standards.

It’s better to be right than first, but being first sure is nice

Beating The New York Times is one of Woodward and Bernstein’s biggest motivations for pursuing the Watergate story in the film. Media conglomerates today may dilute competition somewhat, but American journalism is still largely a capitalist enterprise.

Always check your facts before your watch. But also remember that if you don’t break the story, your competitor will.

Earn your stripes

Something you don’t see Woodward and Bernstein do a lot of in “All the President’s Men” is sleep. The men utterly immerse themselves in the story. It runs through their veins. For example, they spend hours at the Library of Congress tediously sorting through records showing which books the White House ordered over a certain period. Bernstein goes all the way to Dade County in Florida to glean information from the state attorney. At one point later on, he pulls torn napkins with notes written on them out of his pocket because he didn’t have a notebook available during the release of valuable information.

There’s no reason for journalists to make stories complicated if they don’t have to be. But often times they have multiple layers, meaning hard work and a pot of hot coffee are required.

State of Play (2009)

IMDb: 7.3 out of 10
Rotten Tomatoes: 71 percent audience rating 

Some might find “State of Play” to be an unrealistic portrayal of journalism. After all, investigative reporting doesn’t always involve gunfights and midnight trips to shady apartments. But the fictional story of how a Washington Globe reporter links a murder, a congressman’s love affair and a private-defense contract speaks to issues that affect the news industry today.

Conflicts of interest never fly

Reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) violates his journalistic independence within the first five minutes of the movie by offering a police officer coffee as a way to lure out confidential information.

But the main conflict of interest throughout the film is McAffrey’s friendship with Rep. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck). McAffrey reveals information to Collins before he tells his own newspaper, and he coaches the congressman on how to build a “plausible alternative story” to counter reports that one of his staffer’s committed suicide.

Most editors would likely fire reporters who blatantly compromise their independence, particularly if the conflict involves a government official. But central to the story is how McAffrey chooses to report the truth rather than protect the guilty Rep. Collins at the movie’s end. McAffrey writes the story connecting Collins to the murder while police arrest the congressman — McAffrey’s friend.

Sources deserve respect

Journalists must be careful never to let sources manipulate a story in a way that serves someone besides the public. But that doesn’t free reporters from a responsibility to be transparent in the company of those giving them information. McAffrey forgets this duty when he copies down numbers from the phone of a dead shooting victim and then dials the numbers, pretending to be the victim. This masquerade, unknown to the Globe’s executive editor, is especially striking given the recent hacking scandal at News of the World.

McAffrey later tapes an interview without consent and coaxes information out of the interviewee by threatening to slant the story against him. His reporting partner, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), also walks unannounced into the hospital room of a man recovering from multiple gunshot wounds. Sure, journalists sometimes have to resort to extreme measures to finish a story. But, as spelled out in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, “Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.”

Online and print can get along

McAffrey and Frye don’t work well together at the beginning of the movie because they’re on different sides of the digital divide. Frye is a blogger who laces her reports with opinion, which lowers her credibility in the eyes of veteran reporter McAffrey.

When Frye asks McAffrey for background about a possible affair between Rep. Collins and the dead staffer, he mockingly says, “I’d have to read a couple blogs before I could form an opinion.”

He later calls her with information in the middle of the night, saying, “I’m just trying to help you get a few facts in the mix next time you decide to upchuck online.”

The tension is about more than credible reporting. It’s about where the resources of the industry are going. McAffrey becomes visibly discouraged with his editor when he sees how the Globe is investing more in the online side of the newsroom than the print side.

“I’ve been here what, 15 years,” he says. “I use a 16-year-old computer. She’s been here 15 minutes, and she could watch a Russian satellite with the gear she’s got.”

But the two end up working together to implicate Rep. Collins in the murder. McAffrey addresses Frye as a reporter near the movie’s end and lets her hit the button to submit the final story for publishing.

Newsrooms everywhere are embracing technology. But tension still exists between new and old journalists. The relationship that blossoms between McAffrey and Frye is worthy of being replicated even if it does happen on a screen.

News trumps profit

The Washington Globe comes under the ownership of a corporation during the movie, and the new bosses “are interested in sales, not discretion,” in the words of the executive editor. She feels pressure from above and pushes Frye and McAffrey to print the murder story early, so the Globe can turn a profit. When McAffrey tells her they haven’t yet solved the puzzle, she responds, “The real story is the sinking of this bloody newspaper!”

But the editor ends up delaying the front page for more than four hours, so McAffrey has time to speak with the congressman one last time to learn about his involvement in the staffer’s murder.

Making money is nice, but informing the public is priceless.

The Paper (1994)

IMDb: 6.4 out of 10
Rotten Tomatoes: 55 percent audience rating 

Amid the frantic phone calls, editorial-meeting shouting matches and newsroom sprints that characterize “The Paper,” there is a worthy, even timeless, message.

Triumph

Henry Hackett (Michael Keaton) is the metropolitan editor of a paper struggling to stay afloat in the competitive New York market. But while upper management pushes for sensationalist stories with unsubstantiated headlines, Hackett prides himself on seeking the truth. Perhaps the most memorable scene of the movie is when Hackett fights off his editor by the presses while desperately reaching for the button that will abort printing of a front page that wrongly implicates two teenagers in a homicide. True, Hackett doesn’t avoid all wrongdoing while pursuing the story: He steals the lead off the desk of a rival newspaper’s editor. But he sticks with the story until he finds the truth, not just until he discovers something that will turn heads and sell papers.

The greatest triumph in the movie is therefore that of ethics. Hackett is a journalism purist, willing to stop the printers after they’ve already churned out 90,000 newspapers, so he can correct an inaccurate, sensationalized front-page headline.

The movie is called “The Paper,” not “The Tabloid,” for a reason. It’s a story about journalism.

(Screen shots from IMDb)

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About onamizzou

Welcome to the official blog page for University of Missouri students working to bring the Online News Association to Mizzou.
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