Movies that Remind Us Why Good Journalism Matters

By  · Published on December 7th, 2016

Fake news is everywhere. Here are some movies about what it takes to report real news. Spot the difference.

(Open Road Films)

The media has been under major scrutiny due to the rampant rise of fake news stories. Today’s journalists face many challenges from fact-checking statements made by the president-elect to uncovering fake news stories and how they spread. Since the election, I’ve been bombarded with messages from various news organizations about how journalism matters now more than ever (and how I should donate/subscribe/etc). Full disclosure: I just donated to my local public radio station for the first time ever because they provided well-reported news throughout the very recent, and very noisy, election. To myself, and many other people, journalism doesn’t matter “now more than ever” – it’s always mattered, period. We’ve perhaps just forgotten how important it is to have good, trustworthy, fact-based news delivered by legitimate journalists because we are bombarded with news almost everywhere: print, radio, television, computers, mobile, and so forth. In this highly saturated media environment, the rise of fake news sites – and the people who fall for them – has become an ugly truth.

It’s going to take major changes at news organizations and social media companies to fight the fake news frenzy. In the meantime, I’ve lined up a list of films that can help remind us about what good journalism is and why it matters. Please note, this is not an exhaustive list of all journalism movies ever made. There are plenty of movies about journalism and the media, including some fantastic documentaries. Below is a curated selection of mostly fictional films about the journalism profession that are still relevant today.

Network (1976)

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” says the angry anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) in a chilling monologue that feels just a timely in 2016 as it was in 1976. Directed by Sidney Lumet with a script by Paddy Chayefsky, Network follows a fictional television network looking to overcome poor ratings by exploiting the antics of their outgoing anchor Beale. Ironically, his on-air rants and raves about the news media turn into ratings gold for the network. Beale’s words sound like an eerie prediction of the future of the media landscape (see: clip above). He encourages viewers to “get mad” by yelling out their windows. Today, people can do so by publishing a tweet. With Faye Dunaway as an ambitious network executive and William Holden as her love interest colleague, Network serves as a reminder of the relationship between the media establishment and its consumers, as well as the effects of sensationalist journalism and dependence on TV ratings – or in today’s social media age, data and analytics.

All the President’s Men (1976)

In All the President’s Men, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman star as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters whose investigation of the Watergate scandal led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Jason Robards also stars as no-nonsense executive editor Benjamin Bradlee. Alan Pakula’s direction and William Goldman’s script (based on a book by Woodward and Bernstein) help to produce a well-paced account of investigative political journalism that still holds up in these politically charged times. There are two big journalism lessons to learn here: “follow the money” and have reliable sources. In this case, the source was Deep Throat, not exactly the best of sources since he was anonymous (until recently), but at least the guy knew his stuff.

Shattered Glass (2003)

In high school, my journalism teacher made us watch Shattered Glass as a lesson on what not to do as a journalist. (Thanks, Mr. Barr.) Though the film is not perfect, it does a pretty decent job of chronicling the rise and fall of Stephen Glass, a real-life former journalist who fabricated stories he wrote for the The New Republic. Starring Hayden Christiansen in the role of Glass, with a cast that includes Peter Sarsgaard, Chloë Sevigny, Rosario Dawson, Hank Azaria and Steve Zahn. Written and directed by Billy Ray, the film feels a bit dated (see trailer above) but its message is a stark reminder about the ethics of journalism and the need for solid reporting in the age of blogging and fake news. Watch and learn.

His Girl Friday (1940)

The news never sleeps and in His Girl Friday it doesn’t shut up either. Howard Hawks’ screwball newspaper comedy is known for its fast-paced dialogue performed by its stellar leads Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. The pair respectively star as newspaper editor Walter Burns and Hildegard “Hildy” Johnson, the paper’s former star reporter who Burns tries to keep from remarrying and leaving the business. When Hildy gets the scoop on a big story, she can’t help but fall back into her old reporter ways. Hilarity ensues. Based on the play The Front Page, the role of Hildy was originally written for a man. But Russell’s portrayal of the lone yet feisty female reporter in a room full of men is memorable, admirable and gosh darn funny. This film is available in the public domain so go watch it already.

Almost Famous (2000)

In times like these, it often feels like journalists who write about movies, music or the arts don’t measure up to those that write about politics or breaking news. But arts reporting and criticism is just as important as any other journalistic endeavor as it offers insight into artistic works and movements during critical moments in history. Based on Crowe’s personal experiences as a writer covering rock bands like Led Zeppelin, the Eagles and Lynrd Skynrd, Almost Famous follows a 15-year-old journalist who gets an opportunity of a lifetime to cover an up-and-coming rock band for Rolling Stone Magazine. With its catchy soundtrack and highly quotable lines – “One day you’ll be cool,” —Crowe’s film provides a personal take on a time period perhaps equally known for its music as its political movements. The cast features a long list of then-up-and-comers including Kate Hudson, Billy Crudup and Patrick Fugit, alongside veteran performers Frances McDormand as worrisome mother Elaine and Philip Seymour Hoffman as real-life rock critic Lester Bangs.

Spotlight (2015)

In 2002, the Boston Globe published reports uncovering the Roman Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, thrusting the issue of abuse of minors by Catholic priests into the national spotlight. The 2015 film Spotlight chronicles the in-depth research and interviews conducted for the reports by the paper’s investigative division of the same name. Many of its talented cast – which includes Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci and John Slattery – worked closely with the real-life reporters they played in order to accurately portray everything from everyday mannerisms to choice of office wear (spoiler alert: there is a lot of khaki in this movie). Ironically, director and co-writer Tom McCarthy played an ethically challenged journalist who fabricated stories about a serial killer in the television series The Wire. The experience of being around the show’s creator, former Baltimore Sun journalist David Simon, apparently inspired McCarthy to write and direct a movie about journalism. As if the Academy Award-winning film needed any more recognition, Simon gave it his seal of approval, aptly calling it “journalism porn.”

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Writer. Audio/Creative Producer. Columnist, Film School Rejects.