Responsible Reporting Section 3 ‘What You Must Do’: Chapter IX

I owe you an apology. Months ago I promised to finish serializing my ebook Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers, before releasing it into the public domain. The last installment was in mid-October, with one chapter and the Afterword remaining. As I prepare for the New Year, not leaving loose ends is top of mind. Thus, with a huge sorry, this evening I present the closing chapter (but exclude the outdated March 2014 Afterward), The book will release into the public domain to start 2016.

I have posted from Chapter IX before, on Dec. 30, 2014: “You Could Study Journalism, or Learn as Much Watching These Five Films“. Each movie teaches lessons about responsible reporting—some by illuminating irresponsible and/or unethical behavior. The last in the list expresses in an exchange between characters something that should be embedded into the synapses of every 21st Century news gatherer: 

Editor: “You got a cop quote?”
Reporter: “What?”
Editor: “Quote. You know, they talk, you write, we print?”

You got to get the cop quote—meaning original, verifiable source. Not what you think to be true. Not what you read somewhere on the Internet. What you know to be true in the moment based on first-hand reporting; The Prime Directive.

The book’s final chapter is best understood in context of the others, starting at the beginning: Foreward; Section 1, Chapters I and IIIII and IVV and VI; Section 2, Chapters IIIIIIIV, and V; Section 3, Chapters I and IIIIIIV,V, VI, VII, and VIII.

With that introduction…


IX. Film Noir

The Fourth Estate is a popular movie character, and Wikipedia lists 138 entries in category “films about journalists”. Five stand out for lessons conveyed about responsible reporting. They are textbooks you should study, if writing news. I present the movies alphabetically.

Absence of Malice
The film is a lesson about my favorite question: “Who benefits?” Sally Field plays Megan Carter, a Miami Standard reporter who exercises poor ethical judgment in every news story the movie presents. When given opportunity to look at the Fed’s file on Michael Gallagher, played by Paul Newman, she does so without question. A prosecutor takes a toilet break, leaving Carter alone in his office with the document plainly visible on the desk. Ah hum.

Gallagher is guilty of nothing other than being born into the wrong family. The Federal prosecutor’s investigation into a murder is stalled. Carter’s story shakes the tree, to see what falls out of Gallagher. She should have asked “Who benefits?” and “How?” before writing one word. She also should have sought out Gallagher for comment and done additional reporting on her own, rather than relying solely on the leaked file. Carter is a lazy reporter!

Her mistakes compound throughout this superbly-directed film (by Sydney Pollack). You can see for yourself. But I’ll add this (tiny spoiler): The editor who offers Carter a promotion should be canned for not firing her.

All the President’s Men
Alan J. Pakula directs this classic film about the Watergate scandal. Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein, played by Dustin Hoffman, and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) know they have a story, they just aren’t sure what it is. As they work the phones, knock on doors, and skulk around darkened parking garages, an unbelievable conspiracy unfolds. This is investigative journalism at its purest—and toughest, when criticism of the reporting is harsh about inconceivable events.

Released in 1976, “All the President’s Men” authentically captures the era, because Pakula made the movie a few years after the real events. The drama recalls the reporter’s life before cell phones and the Internet.

Shattered Glass
Stephen Glass is one of the New Republic‘s brightest stars. His knack for uncovering and reporting provocative articles—like the young Republicans’ boozer following a convention and the hacker kid wooed by a software company—are amazing. Too bad Glass fabricates stories. He should have taken up fiction writing instead. (I must sheepishly acknowledge that Glass’ work demonstrates the authority and immersive power of writing in present tense. If he can fabricate so convincingly, imagine what present tense can do for your real reporting.)

Like “All the President’s Men”, “Shattered Glass” recalls real events. Billy Ray directs the 2003 film set in the late 1990s.

Journalist Adam Penenberg, during the dawn of digital journalism, exposes Glass when trying to follow up story “Hack Heaven”. None of the sources—not even software company Jukt Micronics—exists.

Glass betrays the trust of his profession, editors, coworkers, and, most importantly, New Republic readers. No excuse can justify his actions. The one asset every reporter or writer has is trust, which is inviolate and absolute. Once lost, trust can never be recovered.

Stigma stings for a long time. In January 2014, the California Supreme Court rejected Glass’ bar application. He cannot practice law.

State of Play
Released in 2009, the political thriller, directed by Kevin Macdonald, is memorable for what it represents today—new and old medias’ intersection and cultural clash.

Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) has a problem. His mistress is mysteriously dead, crushed beneath a Washington, D.C. Metrorail carriage. Not to worry, buddy Cal McAffrey, played by Russell Crowe, leads the investigation for the Washington Globe. McAffrey’s boss compels him to work with political blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), creating dramatic tension that at times is too contrived.

Among the five films, State of Play is the weakest, for the storytelling, but nevertheless conveys several important themes pertinent to news gatherers. Crowe’s character represents the old journalism, while McAdams portrays the new world order. Meanwhile, uncovering the story, while resisting the editor’s demands to publish, leads the reporters down a twisty path.

The Paper
Ron Howard brilliantly captures tabloid journalism in this 1994 comedy. The film follows New York Sun metro editor Henry Hackett (Michael Keaton) over 24 hours. “The Paper” is rich with relevant journalistic themes: Getting the quote (sourcing the story); publishing news relevant to the audience (New Yorkers); accurately reporting the story (despite the hardships); and writing compelling headlines (with art), among other notables.

While the synopsis is shortest, “The Paper” is my favorite among the five films.

And Finally…

As they say, or used to, in the movie industry: “That’s a wrap!” The story that unfolds next is your own. Embrace contextual—anytime, anywhere, on anything—journalism, and…

  • Love your audience, but don’t expect it to love you. Earn trust.
  • Take time to contact sources, although some other writers invent them.
  • Write what you know to be true, even when reading a dozen stories wrong.
  • Make original content a way of life, but know aggregators will synopsis you.
  • Be the trusted news source people depend on, even as the undependable game Google and profit.

Journalism is a tough profession during the second decade of the 21st Century. But the whole industry benefits if just a few news gatherers choose to change the rules. The choice is simple: Empower the Google free economy, or, by reporting responsibly, liberate your audience from aggregators, linkbaiters, and rumormongers. You are the future.