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

This article is a continuation of a series, it’s recommended to read the first entry in order to have the full context of the series.


The Scoop Monster



As Good stated earlier, journalists were either portrayed as crusaders or midnight conspirators, this archetype is the latter. 


In the journalism industry, there’s a common code of ethics that reporters must follow when chasing a story. Important guidelines from that code include; accuracy, integrity, consideration of the people involved, law-abiding reporting and truthfulness. This archetype of journalists completely disregards these guidelines in their fervent pursuit of their next big scoop. As they partake in varying degrees of unethical behavior and practices and are portrayed in varying degrees of positive and negative light, this type of movie reporter willingly, and sometimes enthusiastically, disregards media ethics and laws in hunting down newsworthy stories. A fitting term for this type of journalist would be best coined as a “Scoop Monster”, due to their lack of concern in employing unethical or malicious methods when faced with a potentially newsworthy story, essentially becoming a monster for the scoop.


Despite the campy-sounding name, the concept of the scoop monster is not entirely founded in fiction. Films featuring scoop monsters are occasionally based on real-life stories. One example is the movie “Shattered Glass” (2003), a biographical drama film that depicts former The New Republic journalist Stephen Glass' rise and fall after uncovering his use of highly unethical reporting, specifically his actions in incorporating falsified information in his stories for fame and success. Even Gary Webb, the journalist depicted in “Kill the Messenger” as mentioned by the Times, could be considered a real-life scoop monster, recklessly posing questionable theories and information as legitimate reporting to “break the case wide open”.


However, Scoop Monster journalists often feature as characters in comedy movies. However, their depictions in these movies provide troubling suggestions about how reporters operate within their industry. 


In both installments of the “Anchorman” films, the protagonist Ron Burgundy, a news anchorman for a local San Diego news broadcast, commits unethical or illegal measures to boost his ratings and solidify his status as a news legend. Furthermore, Anchorman’s signature sequence is their comedic, cameo-filled, bloody brawls which consist of numerous competing news outlets. In these fight sequences, one news outlet or competing journalist and posse approach Burgundy and his news team, claiming they seek to kill Ron and his team in an opportunity to eliminate their competition or to settle journalistic grudges. Sensing an opportunity to eliminate industry competition, other news outlets show up until it becomes a full-scale battle. These sequences are meant to be a satire of industry competition between news outlets, yet it’s not the first time this joke has been told on the movie screen.


In “Bruce Almighty” (2003), after television field reporter Bruce Nolan is passed up for an open position as an anchorman, Bruce has an outburst on live broadcast which promptly leads to him being fired, leading him to curse God for his failures. This leads God to lightheartedly challenge Bruce, lending Bruce his omnipotence for a short while to see how he can handle it.


So what does Bruce do with his newfound powers? Armed with a handheld camcorder, Bruce misuses his powers to manipulate reality around him into producing extremely newsworthy events, always placing himself as the most optimal source of coverage for these events. He further misuses his powers to sabotage and humiliate his competitors, conjuring up 220 pounds of marijuana and planting it in a competitor's news van and taking control of an antagonistic co-worker’s body to embarrass himself on live television. Yet, the audience is encouraged to root for Bruce in these endeavors, as these opposing journalists are always seen antagonizing and mocking him, suggesting that’s how competing journalists act towards each other.


Although Anchorman and Bruce Almighty are comedies and serve as satires on the broadcast journalism industry, the audience can leave with troubling impressions of the industry if taking the movies seriously. Firstly, that broadcast journalists are motivated by ratings and fame, leading them to break the journalism code of ethics and laws to pursue big stories, and secondly, in pursuing these stories, journalists view each other as competition and enemies instead of fellow journalists with the same mission.


Scoop Monsters are also often portrayed as serious, detestable miscreants. Hollywood’s most notorious scoop monster features in the neo-noir crime thriller “Nightcrawler” (2014). The film’s protagonist Lou Bloom serves as a culmination of many people’s worst fears surrounding journalists and the industry as a whole. Motivated by praise and monetary compensation, Lou becomes a photojournalist, enthusiastically partaking in some of the most unethical and illegal reporting ever seen on the silver screen. He trespasses multiple active crime scenes, tampers with evidence, films live-action deaths, purposefully influences tragic but newsworthy events and commits manslaughter. It’s arguable that Luo is not a real journalist but instead a sociopathic opportunist, yet his ambition to exploit innocent lives and grisly deaths for gain is resonated with by the morning news director he sells his footage to. Throughout the film, the director continually pushes Lou to get as much graphic news footage as possible, stating that the more graphic and tragic the footage is, the higher ratings and viewership the outlet receives. 


Nightcrawler plays off the worst fears people hold about journalists today; the journalism industry and the reporters in it are only interested in exploiting others for newsworthy stories, motivated only by greed and success. Furthermore, the film also highlights that the viewers of these outlets perpetuate the trend of glorifying tragedy and polarizing news which feeds our current news cycle today.


What Audiences Learn About Journalists


Across all depictions, Journalists are shown to be highly motivated, ambitious and relentless in their craft. Yet, by dramatizing the process of developing a story, so many journalism movies suggest that the line which separates noble, ethical reporters from exploitative, unethical ones is remarkably thin. With numerous polarizing portrayals of journalists across various fields and media, audiences are going to walk away with one of two perceptions. The first is that reporters are noble crusaders, who can do no wrong in the process of bringing truth and justice to the public, even if they disregard important journalistic standards in doing so. Or secondly, journalists are relentless, exploitative, unethical schemers, unphased by the dishonest and even monstrous methods they use to chase a story. 


So What Should Hollywood Do?


While “Spotlight” undoubtedly had a certain amount of drama sprinkled in, The Wall Street Journal review of the film reveals why it’s heralded as one of the best investigative journalism movies of all time, “a celebration of investigative reporting; a terrific yarn that’s spun with a singular combination of restraint and intensity…” The key word is restraint. What Spotlight did that was unique was that it was unafraid to portray the journalistic process as sometimes dull and boring— it put the undramatic on full display for the audience. If Hollywood were to practice a little more restraint in their depictions of journalists, movies could be one less media that enforces a dichotomous view of journalists.

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Tags: movies journalist film movie journalists journalism ethics movie portrayals nightcrawler


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