Student guest post: Hollywood portrays journalists in the extreme

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the second of those posts. Lizzie Goodell is a senior reporting major with a minor in creative writing. She’s originally from Houston, Texas, and balances her love of journalism and film by writing about movies. A lot.

Season one of the popular Netflix series “House of Cards” features a young journalist named Zoe Barnes. Zoe is ruthless and unafraid to break some rules, often blackmailing and sleeping with government officials to get inside information.

The show starts with Zoe working at The Washington Herald, a traditional print newspaper where staff writers have to go through great lengths to get editors to read their stories, let alone publish them. The offices are dingy and dated, and Zoe wears hoodies and jeans to work.

But once her conniving tactics lead to some top-notch stories, Zoe quits and begins working for Slugline, a political news website where fashionable recent grads sit on bean bags instead of chairs. Zoe’s boss berates her for asking someone to read over her story. The time of jumping through hoops at the Herald is over – at Slugline you post your stories to the Web from your phone the second you’re done writing. Editors are a thing of the past.

If you’re a journalist or plan to be one, you can’t help but notice when a journalist is a prominent character in TV or film. You might watch and think: “Is this an accurate portrayal? Is this the kind of journalist I want to be?”

“The movies have portrayed journalists both as upstanding citizens and heroes and as scruffy outsiders and villains,” said Matthew Ehrlich in his 2006 book “Journalism in the Movies.” Zoe Barnes is most likely of the villain variety, but then so is the main character of the show.

The “House of Cards” version of journalism suggests that newspapers can’t keep up with the 21st century and that online news outlets just publish anything because they can. In the real world, we can say that this is unlikely. Papers like The New York Times are online and on social media, and they have email newsletters. Sites like BuzzFeed and Huffington Post have editors and research teams.

Let’s consider the “upstanding citizens and hero” variety of film-portrayed journalists. We’ve got the HBO show “The Newsroom” where broadcast journalists and producers work to be the ultimate watchdogs on all things political and current. When Will McAvoy breaks the story about the 2010 oil spill without a script or prep, it’s rather inspiring.

But then you’ve got movies like “Network” that feature nightly news shows that care about ratings above all else. Then there’s the popular comedy “Anchorman” that suggests that broadcasters are vain and barely capable enough to read off a screen, let alone do real journalism.

But who cares what movies and TV have to say, right? It’s fiction, right? Wrong. “Hollywood’s harsh view of journalists helps form public perceptions,” said Tom Goldstein, a former dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

This opinion has some truth in it – before I entered journalism school and really learned about the profession, Zoe Barnes’ world had me half convinced that newspapers were outdated and sexist. The opposite is true as well – several of my friends have admitted that watching Yale journalism student Rory on “Gilmore Girls” made them choose reporting as their major.

It’s also important to consider journalism films based on real events, and what effect these movies have on audiences. The 2015 Oscar-nominated film “Spotlight” depicts journalists in a positive light. They are the heroes that expose the Catholic priest abuse scandal. The journalists are shown as people who are passionate and desperate to get the story right, tracking down lead after lead despite time constraints.

On the other hand, the 2003 film “Shattered Glass” tells the true story of Stephen Glass, a journalist who was discovered to have fabricated the majority of his stories. But this film is not full of careless editors who let this happen. It depicts a rare time when good journalists were fooled by an expert fabricator.

In the very least, these movies let audiences get an inside look into real journalistic events, allowing them to form their own opinions about the profession. “Spotlight” and “Shattered Glass” are not quite documentaries, but they speak of slightly fictionalized true events in a way that draws crowds to the theater.

Hollywood has a strong impact on the world. A great film or TV show can make us feel like experts in a field like journalism, if only for a moment. But we have to remember that most films and shows are for entertainment purposes.

Journalists are not either the good guy or the bad guy. Real female journalists don’t have to become sexual deviants to get stories, and broadcast news stories need tons of editing and research before they’re ready to air. I’m not saying you should stop watching great movies, but I am saying that the world of journalism is not black and white, even if most newspapers are.