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How Hollywood’s Black-and-White Portrayals of Journalists Might Affect the Audiences’ Perceptions of Them (Part One)

Today, “journalist” is a polarizing word. To some, journalists are playing an active role in polarizing society and widening the political divide in our country. To others, journalists continue to honorably uphold their civic responsibility, serving as watchdogs who provide valuable information, protecting democracy and society as a whole. Despite strong, varying attitudes towards journalists across the United States, American citizens are often unaware of the full character of “the journalist” and the processes behind their craft. 


Movies are one of the most popular mediums in exposing audiences to industries that the general public might not be familiar with. Journalism is no exception. Since the early 20th century, Hollywood has gone about making dramatic, cinematic narratives out of the lives and experiences of journalists, both real and fictional. However, despite an extensive history of journalist depictions in movies, spanning across genres and ages, after watching these movies with a hint of criticality, it becomes apparent that journalists are seemingly unable to escape being categorized into one of two archetypes in film. 


As author Howard Good states in his book, “Acquainted with the Night: The Image of Journalists in American Fiction, 1890-1930”: “Journalists have been portrayed by turns as idealists and hardened cynics, crusaders and midnight conspirators. Our attitude toward them continually swings from dark to bright and back again,” (p. 106). If Jaws could influence an entire generation to develop an irrational fear of sharks, then how might decades of black-and-white portrayals of journalists affect society’s perception of what the fourth estate is like? 


The Noble Detective with a Pen

In an interview with The New York Times following the release of his historical journalism drama film “Truth” (2015),  writer and director James Vanderbilt offered up one explanation as to why Hollywood and movie audiences are fascinated by journalists. “Mr. Vanderbilt’s theory — and it’s a persuasive one — is that despite journalism’s dramatic shortcomings, reporters make good central characters because they are detectives with pens. ‘There is something inherently interesting about someone who comes to work every day saying, “I’m going to get to the bottom of this,” he said.’” Vanderbilt’s theory solidifies one of cinema’s most used archetypes for journalists, an archetype I’ve named after his phrase in his theory, “the noble detective with a pen”. 


Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein from “All The President’s Men” (1976), Ben Bradlee from “The Post” (2017) and the Boston Globe spotlight team from Spotlight (2015) can all fit into this journalist archetype. The noble detective with a pen is much like the crusader Good described; they relentlessly pursue a story, a story they’re willing to put before everything else, including their own livelihood, which will illuminate the truth about a misdeed done by a powerful person or institution, bringing justice and solidifying journalism’s value to society— all within two hours of movie runtime. After heroically rushing to and from interviews with groundbreaking sources, the noble journalist returns to their dingy apartment, suggesting that great journalists don’t mind the financially unrewarding work, because their only desired form of payment is the accomplishment of delivering truth and justice to the public. It’s a cliche trope that’s become so common in journalism movies, that the “Late Night with Seth Meyers” show made a joke specifically about this trope in a skit titled “Newspaper movie”, which parodied modern journalism movies. 


Sources hint that Alan J. Pakula’s “All The President’s Men” has strongly influenced this modern trend of increasingly positive portrayals of journalists on the silver screen. One study noted that after the release of the film, “there was a surge in young people wanting to enter journalism in order to 'make a difference' and to challenge the status quo.”


Author and popular Youtube essayist Evan Puschak (AKA NerdWriter1) as well as the Times suggested that “All The President’s Men”, one of the most prominent journalism films in recent history, has influenced modern journalism movies to portray journalists in a heroic light. 


Additionally, The film introduced the iconic scene of meeting in dark garages with shadowy figures to receive dangerous information into pop culture, creating another trope in film where noble journalists must face a certain level of peril in order to “save democracy”. Essentially, Pakula’s “All The President’s Men” did for journalism what “Top Gun” did for the United States Air Force.


Although the events of the film are based on Woodward and Berstein’s personal accounts of the events through their non-fiction book of the same name, there are few investigative reporting stories whose process is nearly as dramatic, and yet Hollywood is seemingly obsessed with portraying journalism stories in a similarly climatic fashion, including the journalists within them. However, This is understandable when creating a movie, because as Puschak further puts it, when producing a journalism movie, directors must take on the task of “dramatizing the undramatic”, for rarely is the journalistic process as exciting and perilous as “All The President’s Men'' makes it out to be.


Yet, as known with other stereotypes, even good stereotypes can be harmful. As the Times points out, Vanderbilt’s “Truth” suffers from the same issue that other films might run into when portraying journalists in an overwhelmingly positive perspective; casting a heroic light on bad journalism. As the Times puts it, “And while the film’s writer and director, James Vanderbilt, nods at their errors, his underlying message seems to be that the larger truth…they were trying to tell should not have been undermined just because they were fooled by a few fake documents.”


Highlighting this troubling trend, the article recounts another movie in which flawed journalism was portrayed in a heroic light:


“In 2014, Michael Cuesta’s ‘Kill the Messenger’ told the story of Gary Webb, a reporter for The San Jose Mercury News who wrote a three-part series in 1996 claiming that the country’s crack cocaine epidemic was the result of a C.I.A. conspiracy…Although Mr. Webb’s series was quickly discredited by major media outlets, including The New York Times, the film depicts the reporter as a lonely truth-seeker standing up to powerful government forces. Based on a memoir by Mr. Webb, who died in 2004, the film never acknowledges the shortcomings of his reporting, though The Mercury News eventually did.”


Thus it seems that Hollywood, through their habit of dramatizing the undramatic, thins the line which separates ethical and unethical reporting practices and portrays journalists who tiptoe that line as heroic, ultimately presenting the idea that any errors or sins made in the journalistic process are outweighed by the delivery of a bombshell story. It seems that the most damaging aspect of portraying a journalist as a relentless, crusading, noble detective with a pen is the idea that, in journalism, heroics come first and good reporting comes second.

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