The Ink-Stained Screen, from Ernie Pyle to “Law & Order”
What film and TV depictions of reporters tell us about the state of public trust in journalism.
By Lisa Rabasca Roepe
If you want a crash course in the trajectory of public trust in the media, scan through the evolution of how reporters have been portrayed on screens large and small.
During the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, reporters were almost universally portrayed as likable and trustworthy, performers of an important public service. They had their foibles, but were rarely depicted as dishonest. The most iconic portrayal of the press from this period is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the classic 1939 Frank Capra film about one man’s stand against political corruption in the capital. A similarly positive portrayal of the media is found in 1945’s The Story of G.I. Joe, a biopic about war correspondent Ernie Pyle, who joins the army and writes articles about his fellow soldiers, bearing silent witness to their struggles and cutting a template for the reporter as patriot and hero.
In the 1950s, movies begin warning of the dangers of corporate mass media, but most films still portrayed individual members of the press corps as people of conscience. In the 1960s and 1970s, public trust in most national institutions took a steep dive, but the Fourth Estate was a notable exception. This was reflected in the films of the period. In the 1974 political thriller The Parallax View, nothing and no one is to be trusted — except the hero-reporter played by Warren Beatty. In the era-defining 1976 satire, Network, the newsman Harry Beale delivers a lonely cry of honest pain and resistance against a world run by soulless conglomerates, media and otherwise. That same year, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein famously received a different kind of hero’s treatment in the 1976 political thriller All the President’s Men.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, that 1976 was the year that Americans’ trust in the media peaked at 72 percent, and began a steady decline that continues today, according to Gallup.
If one were to choose a moment when film portrayals of journalists turned, one candidate is Megan Carter’s irresponsible newspaper reporter in the 1981 film, Absence of Malice, the title of which comes from the legal definition of libel. In the film, federal prosecutor Elliot Rosen leaks information to Carter about Mike Gallagher, a liquor warehouse owner suspected of murdering a union boss. Carter never stops to consider the prosecutor’s motives, or the veracity of the information, and a number of tragic events occur after the newspaper publishes Carter’s article: The union shuts down Gallagher’s business. Gallagher’s girlfriend Teresa commits suicide. The film has nuance, but the reporter is clearly the villain, her profession depicted as anything but heroic.
There are a lot of factors one could explore to try and explain this change. Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of American Press Institute, believes it’s no accident that the first movie to focus on a negative portrayal of a reporter hit the big screen in 1981, a year after Ted Turner introduced the public to the first 24-hour TV news show. “Public trust in the media really started declining during the rise of cable news and the 24-hour news cycle, because suddenly every story is being covered,” he says. “Prior to 1980, CBS, NBC and ABC wouldn’t distribute footage of national stories to its own affiliates until it appeared on the network’s nightly news. As a result, news coverage was a lot more restrained.”
Whatever Ted Turner’s contribution to declining trust, the trend of portraying the media as irresponsible has only deepened since the 1980s. In recent years, Spotlight (2015) and The Post (2017) have shown how investigative journalists can serve the public by uncovering corruption and crime, but far more movies have portrayed journalists as sneaky and deceptive. Consider the reporter character Josie Geller in Never Been Kissed, who poses “undercover” at a high school and then secretly films students without the school’s consent while the entire newsroom watches from her editor’s office. In Trainwreck, feature writer Amy Townsend sleeps with the subject of her magazine profile the same day she interviews him. In Nightcrawler, Lou Bloom instantly goes from petty thief to freelance photojournalist, recording violent incidents in affluent areas and selling them to the local news. It’s not just movies. In Law and Order, the media is rarely represented as anything but an anonymous horde; when the show does take the time to develop a journalist character, their traits are never very flattering.
“It’s hard to find a journalist in an episode of Law and Order who isn’t exploitive or cheating,” Rosenstiel says. Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at Poynter Institute, adds, “The cliché is reporters are portrayed as cutting corners or getting in the way of law enforcement.”
These portrayals reflect public opinion polls about the industry. Last summer, Pew Research Center found that only 21 percent of U.S. adults have “a lot” of trust in the media. In comparison, 29 percent have “not much” trust and less than half (49 percent) have “some” trust in the media.
Why is this? According to Pew, 68 percent said they believe the news media covers up its mistakes. The public also feels disconnected from the news media, according to Pew. Slightly more than half of Americans (58 percent) said they do not feel like news organizations understand people like them, and a similar amount (56 percent) do not feel connected to their main sources of national news. Pew senior researcher Jeffrey Gottfried notes that these concerns are more nuanced than they appear: when Pew asked U.S. adults if they expect the news to be accurate, 71 percent said they expect news stories to be largely accurate.
Helping people to better understand the role of the news media and how journalists do their jobs may help to increase public trust in the media, experts say. And here films can play a constructive role beyond reflecting fluctuating levels of public trust. In fact, part of what is so welcoming about movies like Spotlight is the way they portray journalism in a very straightforward, procedural way, without glamorizing or oversimplifying the story, Edwards says.
“There is an interest in more stories like that,” Edwards says. In this vein, two Hollywood production companies, Plan B and Annapurna Pictures, recently acquired the rights to produce a film based on The New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s reporting of sexual misconduct by Harvey Weinstein.
It would also be helpful, says Rosensteil, to develop a movie that demonstrates the role of the media in local cities and towns. A movie that can show the importance of a local news reporter showing up at the government council meeting, stumbling onto to something interesting and then asking questions may help to restore public trust, Rosenstiel says, but it probably wouldn’t be very exciting to watch. Edwards agrees that “some of the plodding, going through public records and talking to people who don’t have much to say isn’t inherently dramatic.” Which likely helps explain why shows like Law and Order sensationalize the role of journalists.
At least one news organization is trying to provide an antidote to the rise in unlikable journalist characters. Alabama Media Group’s social news brand Reckon has produced a series of mini documentaries for Facebook Watch. Guns, Drugs and Barbershop: How Small-Town Reporters Exposed a Crooked Sheriff demonstrates how actual newspaper reporters heard a rumor, started asking questions and eventually uncovered corruption at the sheriff’s office that lead to the sheriff pleading guilty. Reckon’s first season has received 5.8 million views.
“Across America, despite the loss of newspapers and journalists on the ground, there are hundreds of really deeply talented investigative reporters plying their trade on behalf of the public,” says Michelle Holmes, head of partnerships at Alabama Media Group. “Often those reporters and their work is uncelebrated and misunderstood.”
These mini episodes are meant to help the public understand, not just the corruption that is uncovered, but how these reporters do their job. The public often thinks investigative reporting is about looking for the bad in everything rather than trying to protect the public. “Good investigative reporting always comes back to who has been wronged and who should be held accountable,” Holmes says.
One of the most important things a journalist does is to show up and bear witness, says Rosenstiel of API. The more movies and TV shows remind people of the importance of a free press, the more likely public trust in the media will rebound. And the more likely it will be that journalists are portrayed on screen as likable and reliable sources of information.
Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C. Her articles have appeared in Fast Company, OZY,Quartz, The Week, Men’s Journal and the Christian Science Monitor.
Last edited: May 5, 2019
Author: Lisa Rabasca Roepe
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: Story of G.I. Joe / United Artists