“All the President’s Men” and Investigative Journalism
The movie “All the President’s Men,” centers around two reporters from The Washington Post and their experience uncovering the Watergate scandal through investigative reporting.
One method of carrying out an investigation for journalism is the Paul Williams Way — an 11-step procedure for journalists to follow when reporting for an investigative piece. Several of these steps can be seen throughout the movie.
Reporters Woodward and Bernstein met with editors numerous times for a “go/no-go decision” meeting. Throughout the movie editor, Ben Bradlee had to decide whether he wants to continue through with the story despite the amount of denials from participants and unidentified sources.
The original research that both reporters had to do was astounding as well. They were constantly trying to back up every statement with at least two or three sources. They always had a notebook in their hands writing down every single statement. I remember one part in particular where they obtained a list of the members of the Committee to re-elect and visited each one personally over and over again to try and get any bit of information they could. Talk about some research dedication.
Another aspect of the movie that stood out to me was the way the reporters handled Step 8 of the Paul Williams Way — filling in the gaps. There were various times when it would have been so easy for the reporters to assume that something was the case and write it. However, they kept each other accountable throughout the movie reminding each other that if they wanted to produce a solid piece, they had to make sure they had the facts right and backed up with several sources, no matter how obvious something seemed.
The reporters used a lot of primary sources for their stories. They typically did a lot of interviews with people directly associated with Watergate, and they used different public records.
However, with doing interviews came a lot of hardship for Woodward and Bernstein. They encountered a lot of “whistleblowers” — people who knew that something wrong had been done but were afraid to share it. The reporters faced a lot of rejection from a lot of different people, but also tried to do their part in getting information anyway they could because they knew these people were key to getting a correct story.
In fact, at one point in the movie, Bernstein told the secretary that he would guess they initials of who was involved in stealing funds and all she had to do was indicate whether or not he was right. The reporters had to get creative with how they got information out of people who did not want to be associated with the story.
The Watergate story they were tackling was also difficult because it was very technical. It involved a lot of powerful people in powerful positions and money. Lots of money. When working on this story, both reporters had to know how to navigate Capital Hill, the White House, the FBI, campaign budgets, etc. Most of the time, leads on the story were not in plain sight either. They were small details found in documents or a slip up on a name during an interview. Reporters had to know what they were looking for, catch those things and follow through on them.
Many would debate on whether or not Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting methods throughout the movie were ethical or not. However, according to “The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook,” the reporting done by Woodward and Bernstein was fair and ethical. They identified themselves as reporters before asking questions. They documented EVERYTHING. They gave everyone a chance to comment and give their side of the story. They kept their sources anonymous when asked and ran the story by their sources before publishing. They always made sure to have multiple sources verifying every statement they made, no matter how obvious.
The reporting done by Woodward and Bernstein shown in the movie “All the President’s Men,” was one of the biggest uncoverings in journalism history. These guys made investigative reporting famous. They easily could have given up on the story the moment it got difficult to find sources or when politicians denied everything. However, they continued to work with seeking and relaying the truth as their number one priority.
The biggest things I learned from the movie are to look in the details and know your stuff. If Woodward and Bernstein did not have the prior political knowledge that they had or if they did not go over their story a million times to catch and put together the details, the story would have ended the moment things got hard the first time. Watching this movie was a little stressful for me, but it also inspired me to work hard at a story, look at every single angle, know who I am talking to and what they have done, and no matter how jumbled a story looks, work hard to find the missing pieces and put them together.
I wish Woodward and Bernstein were still around so that I could ask them what advice they would have for a student like me just entering the journalism field. However, I am grateful for their hard work, dedication and example so that we can continue to report well from generation to generation too.
On my honor, I have watched “All the President’s Men” in its entirety.