A round up of reporters’ favourite film types explains why journalism still has a long way to go before it’s representative of the population.
Throughout the cinematic ages, what all journalism movies seem to have in common is an all-white cast, mostly male and from a privileged background. You might say this is merely a reflection of reality, but isn’t film meant to expand on what’s possible, even inspire? A general lack of questioning of this state of play is slightly disconcerting and it can be argued, reflective of the sclerotic state of mind of journalism today.
After a quick browse online, here are the top five journalism movie categories real-life reporters seem to favour the most.
The top movies tend to be the investigative journalism narratives. According to Poynter and USA Today among others All the Presidents’ Men takes pole position, depicting how hard work uncovered the Watergate scandal. Similar hard-graft movies include Spotlight, recounting the Boston Globe’s uncovering of the Catholic church’s child abuse scandal.
Perhaps the appeal is that those two big wins for journalism are hard to repeat now that editors have to keep one eye on the balance sheet, and the other on libel.
Interesting to add to this category is Kill the Messenger, the true story of an investigative reporter uncovering the CIA Contra scandal then fighting for his reputation as the mass media turned against him.
What would a good heartwarming narrative be without its polar opposite? The flip side of the coin is Shattered Glass, a film that depicts the exact opposite to graft telling the story of a journalist at the New Republic who made up the stories he wrote. The plot is not unique, well known is Jason Blair of the New York Times, for instance who seems to be the main character in True Story.
Not so far-fetched if stories have to be churned out with no time or resources allocated to them. One journalist said he enjoyed Shattered Glass for the “on the job training” it provides.
Then there’s the token black and white movie. Unfortunately it’s the one black and white movie about journalism whose sugar coating would make your teeth rot. This Girl Friday is still, of course, entertaining and moves at a pace but it’s got nothing on The Sweet Smell of Success, which chronicles the toxic relationship between the press and PR, or Ace in the Hole, which lays bare why journalism á la Watergate cannot survive within a capitalist model.
Dramatised behind-the-scenes movies also tend to do well, for instance Network, Frost/Nixon or the melodramatic Absence of Malice. The Killing Fields is an interesting spin-off of this concept with a Western journalist reporting on Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge; he returns home to great acclaim while his native Cambodian interpreter and co-reporter is left behind. McCarthy-era storytelling might also fall within this category.
The last category and the least favoured, is what can be loosely described as outcast movies. The Columbia Journalism Review included in its list a made-for-TV movie about Nellie Bly, a turn of the century investigative journalist who uncovered the plight of those locked up in mental institutions and those working in factories. Dear White People, meanwhile, is included in the list of the British Film Institute even though it is more of a social commentary on racial relations than a journalism movie. Perhaps this category is where we can fit Nightcrawler, the dark tale of a mentally unstable early-mojo-style journalist.
Some visual inspo below through the lens of movie posters.