Six Films Every Journalist Should See

Yesterday afternoon, I started watching movie “Spotlight”, which later won Best Picure during the 88th Academy Awards. Following the Oscars, I finished the film, which warrants inclusion in my list of movies that every news gatherer should watch. If there are others worthy, please prompt me. I previously posted, on Dec. 30, 2014: “You Could Study Journalism, or Learn as Much Watching These Five Films“.

All six movies offer valuable lessons about responsible news reporting and ethical boundaries that matter in the real world—beyond the ideals that J Schools teach, regardless the kind of journalism you practice.  My ebook Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers identifies five types (and really should count seven): Advocacy, contextual. conversational, mob, and process

Any—and ideally all—of these films are a great way to shake the ethical cage as 2016 progresses. Wikipedia lists more than 200 entries in category “films about journalists“, and I choose those that combined convey lessons about responsible and irresponsible news reporting. They are textbooks anyone writing news should study; presented alphabetically. Interestingly, Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams each appear in two of the films and one of them together.

Absence of Malice
The movie 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.

The list’s newcomer follows Boston Globe investigative team “Spotlight” as it digs into allegations that Catholic priests had abused children in their parishes. Set in 2001, and directed by Tom McCarthy, the movie, eh, spotlights the importance of newspapers serving a local audience and the ethical quandaries that follow. Like All the President’s Men and Shattered Glass, Spotlight recounts real events.

Sometimes a newsroom can get too involved with its community to the point of reporting tunnel vision, as the film demonstrates. Incoming Globe editor Marty Baron, played by Liev Schreiber, asks the Spotlight team to investigate the alleged abuses but encounters resistance. The reporters are somewhat blinded by their biases, concerns about reaction from a predominately Catholic readership, and the local diocese’s infleuce. Baron is Jewish and single and not represnatative of the Globe staff or its readership.

Working with editor “Robby” Robbinsin (Michael Keaton), reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) methodically dig and dig and dig into allegations for which there is little evidence that is in the public record or about which lawyers or victims can legally discuss. The investigators’ efforts are complicated by a shocking discovery (spoiler alert): The Globe could have had the story in 1993 but failed to follow through with additional reporting.

The film’s pace reminds of All the President’s Men, but the ethical issues are broader and topic of sexual abuse makes accuracy and verifiable sourcing of utmost importance. The big break comes from using yearly directories of priests to identify clergy transferred or moved into interim statuses like “sick leave”. I said there are two other journalisms missing from my list. The Spotlight team practices one in its infancy: Data journalism, which would be much more easily done in 2015 (year of the movie’s release) than in 2001.

State of Play
Released in 2009, the political thriller, directed by Kevin Macdonald, is memorable for what it represents today—new and old media’s 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 (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 (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 six films.