Seven Movies Every Journalist Should See

Periodically, I update my picks for must-see movies about news reporting. More than eight years have passed since the last list, in February 2016—before the tumultuous Presidential election that thrust Donald Trump into the White House and precipitated disastrous changes across American newsrooms.

Editorialization of news, once taboo, is widespread. Many stories are subjective and slanted, pushing progressive—or, to lesser degree, conservative—values over impartial presentation of facts. The changes are evident in headlines or deks but more earnestly descriptive modifiers used for emphasis, where none should be.

I haven’t recently written as much about responsible reporting as my profession needs. Most recent missive, from June last year, is “Relic of the Fourth Estate“. Take a look.

Colleagues! Editors! Publishers! We have a responsibility to the society and world of humanity to put aside our own subjective biases. Stop evangelizing what you want to be true and write what is true based on your actual reporting. That means doing first-hand sourcing. Not Instagram. Not TikTok. Not X. You communicate directly with the sources, whether people or by utilizing datasets.

As another Presidential election approaches, and a quagmire of positioning for and against candidates sinks sensible news reporting, reckoning is overdue to course correct the Fourth Estate. That won’t happen, likely. But perhaps some of you could do some ethical soul searching—if not more—by watching any, or all, of these seven films.

They are meant to shake the ethical cage. I choose movies 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.

Civil War
The newest addition, released this year, is timely in context of the country’s real world deep Blue-Red divide with respect to politics and values. Sometime in the not-so-distant future, the USA is fractured, with California and Texas driving the forces fighting in opposition to Washington, D.C. and its loyalist states.

The movie opens with a water war, so to speak, on the streets of New York City. People are thirsty, and trucks dispensing fluid are idle. Working for Reuters, Lee Smith (Kirsten Dunst) and Joel, played by Wagner Moura, cover the event. She photographs, he reports. They are a seasoned combat team. This isn’t their first war gig, but it hits closest to home—quite literally.

Entering the foray: Aspiring photographer Jessie Cullen (Cailee Spaeny), packing a Nikon film camera (can you say Gen Z stereotype, trope) but ambling along confused in the mayhem. Smith pulls the 23-year-old to safety just as a suicide bomber brandishing an American flag blows up the water truck, killing civilians and cops.

Next day, the trio, accompanied by journalist Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), head out on a circuitous route to the District of Columbia via Charlottesville, Virginia (where is the frontline). Rumors are that the war is winding down, and the two Reuters reporters want to interview the President.

Written and directed by Alex Garland, Civil War is the story of the journalists’ journey and what real reporting requires, particularly in the midst of war. There’s almost insanity to how the two women push themselves and their cameras into blazing battle zones—to document intense moments of combat conflict and human emotions that are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

You really want to be a journalist? Aspire to be like Cullen and Smith, and Joel. Get the shot. Get the quote. Duck the bombs and bullets.

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.

Another story culled from actual events 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.

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 influence. Baron is Jewish and single and not representative of the Globe staff or its readership.

Working with editor “Robby” Robbinson (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”. The Spotlight team practices, 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—new and old media’s intersection and cultural clash. Surprisingly, many of the ethical, profitable, and technical issues are as relevant 15 years later.

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 seven 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 many hardships)
  • Writing compelling, or grabbing, headlines (with dramatic art)

The Paper is my favorite among the seven movies and, honestly, the most highly recommended. The newsroom and news meetings among editors feel the most authentic. Meanwhile, the movie banters about several different, but related, journalistic ethical quandaries that should be relevant to you.