What Do Journalists Do?
Today’s “J-school” graduate must know more than how to follow leads, interview people, compose articles, edit ruthlessly, adhere to word counts and satisfy editors. They must also meet impossible deadlines, chase go-nowhere leads and put up with pressroom egos. This is no career for shy folks.
Where do Americans get their news these days? According to Pew Research, eight-in-ten people turn to digital devices; smartphones, computers and tablets. Electronics convey around 86% of today’s news while TV, radio, and print trail behind.
What does this mean for future journalists eager to break the next big story? Acquiring as many digital skills as sleuthing skills, and it doesn’t hurt to specialize. The following 10 films offer readers insights into this dynamic profession and for those who wouldn’t dream of pursuing another career, every one of them is a gem.
Great Movies about Journalism
1. The Front Page (1931)
What began as a 1928 Broadway box office smash written by to industry lions Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, The Front Page begins as an irreverent peek into the dingy press room hidden under Chicago’s criminal courts building and behind Cook County gallows. There, journalists spend more time playing poker than digging up news.
But when reporters are invited to witness the hanging of Earl Williams, reporter Hildy Johnson smells something fishy. Once the joking ends, reporters decide to cover one of the first of a generation of films showcasing local government corruption as unearthed by dogged reporters. Because both MacArthur and Hecht were award-winning journalists, this storyline rings true.
Duration: 1h 41 min
2. All the President’s Men (1976)
Because this movie takes place in The Washington Post newsroom, the publication’s media critic made an earnest effort to review this film accurately: “Impartiality aside, no film blends the elements of journalism and Washington intrigue more compellingly than All the President’s Men, the tale of two Washington Post reporters who helped take down the No. 1 resident on Pennsylvania,” wrote staffer Matt Slovik.
For those who haven’t seen this award-winning film, it’s a tale of colleagues Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, two-beat reporters assigned to cover a routine break-in at National Democratic Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex. Acting on a tip from a Washington insider, this film depicts the depths to which investigative pros will go to ferret out the truth.
Duration: 2h 18 min
Rating: Originally R; changed to PG by MPAA
3. Network (1976)
Helmed by legends Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, and William Holden, this dramedy provided moviegoers with but one of the first inside looks at the realities of broadcast news and the personalities behind their on-air façades. Earning 4-stars from Roger Ebert, this film explores the realities of rating-hungry producers eager to do what it takes to lure market share away from competitors.
Hollywood greats like screenplay writer Paddy Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet helped this movie win 4 of 10 Academy Awards for which it was nominated. Ebert calls Network the quintessential “peek into the decaying values of television.” On the film’s 25th anniversary, he wrote “it is like a prophecy” of what’s to come.” Think Fox, MSNBC, and CNN, competing for ratings while pandering to viewers who aren’t seeking unbiased news reporting.
Duration: 2h 1 min
4. The China Syndrome (1979)
Routinely sent to nuclear power plants to report on safety, a small TV film crew turns up on a day that is anything but ordinary as warnings of a nuclear spill blast across the facility. The reporter, videographer, and producer want to generate a live feed to let the public know what’s happening.
Attesting to the power of the media, this box office smash triggered a backlash from the nuclear power industry. “Sheer fiction,” a representative said — until 12 days later when the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor disaster occurred. Producers went to extremes to make certain all details were authentic. Sample this trailer to get a fascinating peek:
Duration: 2h 2 min
5. The Killing Fields (1984)
The ongoing debate among print and broadcast reports about whether it is courageous or foolhardy to volunteer as an embedded journalist in wartime had a particularly meaningful place in cinematic journalism during Vietnam. Those same risks are being taken by reporters strapping on Kevlar vests in Ukraine today.
Based on New York Times war correspondent Sydney Schanberg and Cambodian reporter Dith Pran’s experiences, the two reporters seek to reveal U.S. meddling in Cambodia’s civil war. The back story, about the unbreakable bond between professionals Trying to stay alive long enough to report what they witness, helped this movie win three Academy Awards, one of which went to Haing S. Ngor, the actor portraying Pran.
Duration 2h 21 min
6. The Paper (1994)
“Watching The Paper got me in touch all over again with how good it feels to work … on a story you believe in, on deadline. Those were some of the happiest days of my life,” wrote Roger Ebert about The Paper, artfully directed by Ron Howard and starring Michael Keaton as Hackett; the passionate managing editor compelled to chase big stories, even at the risk of destroying his personal relationships.
This film covers 24 hours in a newsroom as the story of a lifetime breaks: Two men are shot dead as two young Black teens flee the scene. The police don’t think the kids did it but won’t go on record. When a reporter discovers that police don’t believe the kids are guilty, staff is urged to put the story out anyway. The moral dilemma facing Hackett is not unique. .
Duration: 1h 50 min
7. The Insider (1999)
This Michael Mann-directed film is a riveting look at what happens to journalists when a whistleblower wants to bear witness to a truth that has the potential to kill people and end careers of those behind the story. The Insider has been fictionalized but it’s based on real events that reveal lies being told by major tobacco producers. An “insider” contacts producers of the CBS program 60 Minutes. He’s willing to go on record.
Christopher Plummer portrays Mike Wallace and Russell Crowe as whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand whose disclosures threaten to upend Big Tobacco, but it’s the debate between network executives and show producers about airing a watered-down version of the scandal that keeps viewers nailed to their seats. Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article helped shepherd this project to fruition:
Duration 2h 37 min
8. Shattered Glass (2003)
One of the biggest journalism scandals in America, Shattered Glass is a no-holds-barred look at what happened when rising The New Republic (TNR) star Stephen Glass is caught fabricating dozens of stories. Moviegoers know upfront that Glass uses his personality to hide the truth and it’s up to viewers to figure out why he destroyed his career beyond blatant hubris and a frightening absence of ethics.
“Without realizing it, TNR had started publishing fiction,” said Roger Ebert, admitting that he too was taken in by Glass’s talent and audacity. A trio of remarkable actors – Hayden Christensen, Steve Zahn, and Peter Sarsgaard – take moviegoers through this film that has been compared — in character development and tension — with All the President’s Men. It should be required viewing in every journalism class.
Duration 1h 30 min
9. Spotlight (2015)
Britain’s The Guardian, called Spotlight “exposing the sins of the fathers,” because it relentlessly documents and reports on the child abuse scandal that rocked Boston’s Catholic community. Sublime casting by actor turned filmmaker Tom McCarthy follows a small group of dogged journalists who fought to reveal the truth about predatory priests, despite legal roadblocks erected by the Catholic church.
At first reluctant to take on the Vatican, Spotlight reporters began their efforts by unearthing abuses by retired priest John Geoghan. The story grows legs from there, revealing international, systematic coverups. Also compared to All the President’s Men, Spotlight unfolds a complex pattern of nuances so intricate, viewers are impressed by this small group’s tenacity and dedication to the truth).
Duration: 2h 9 min
Rating: R for language and sexual references
10. The Post (2017)
Having assumed ownership of The Washington Post newspaper, Katherine Graham finds herself in a precarious position as she and her staff play catch up to rival The New York Times over a once-in-a-lifetime story about government secrets and coverups related to Vietnam triggered by informant Daniel Ellsberg. His leaks became The Pentagon Papers and Graham found herself awash in legal restraining orders.
An insightful look into one women’s struggle to command one of the world’s most prestigious newspapers while juggling financial crises, reporter’s egos and dominating men eager to exploit her lack of experience, Meryl Streep’s Katharine Graham stands up to adversity. She is willing to do what it takes to support her journalists as the story escalates so profoundly, it spans three decades and impacts four U.S. presidents.
Duration: 1h 56 min
Rating: PG-13 for language and war violence