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3 Movies About Journalism

These 3 movies show how the media manipulates can be malipulated.

Network (1976)

Reviewed on September 8, 2007.

Howard Beale (Peter Finch), an acclaimed news anchor with falling ratings announces he’s going to kill himself on air one week from now. UBS news uses Beale’s mental instability launch a new show and gain new viewership.

The main ethical issues raised are twofold. First, there are the questions of watering down news and the rise of infotainment. Second, can and do those on television have the power to influence politics by propagating extremist views, and by appealing to subconscious fears of the society raise monetary profits?

The film starts with assertion that journalists may often feel untruthful when on the screen. This is exactly what has happened to Beale – he has felt like a hypocrite for having to always smile even at catastrophic news. Nevertheless, his mental breakdown and newfound energy as madman make him the perfect host for the new show. The slogan of his show ‘I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!’ becomes highly influential with viewers around the US. This raises an interesting issue. Because Beale takes a stand, and becomes well known and popular for his extreme political views Beale himself gains political clout that he didn’t have as a simple journalist. Whether such assertive media influence can have negative impacts on the society is a question which needs further research.

At least in this fictional film Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), a producer at the station starts to emphasize the business side of things more and more, and considers news to be a part of the entertainment category. The show can be aired because the US laws allow for ‘commentary’ in the news. Christensen goes even to the lengths of hiring a left-wing extremist group to produce a series which captures acts of terror. This is raises a red flag for those who think that media is powerful and can assert certain ideas as described in the previous paragraph.

The film goes further though and throws the story into a hyperbole. When Beale’s rating start to decline again, Christensen and other television executives have Beale assassinated. It becomes apparent that all morality and ethics have disappeared from television and the scene becomes a certain prophecy into the future of television.

Such ideas were perhaps in a film released in 1976, but in this century that sort of concerns over television (save the killing) is something we’ve come to expect, although not always accept.

Absence Of Malice (1981)

Reviewed on September 16, 2007.

Megan Carter (Sally Field) is an independent woman and a journalist at the Miami Standard. She’s highly dedicated and believes in what she does. When unbeknownst to her she’s manipulated into publishing a leaked story of the son of a late mafia boss, Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) ‘being investigated for the disappearance of a union worker’, she’s confronted with the question of whether accuracy of facts guarantees truth.

It is already curious that in order to publish her work she has to consult with the newspaper’s lawyer. The layer suggests something remarkable – that as a matter of law the truth of her story is irrelevant. Because an attempt had been made to contact Gallagher for a comment, the paper would be safe form legal action because of what is called an ‘absence of malice’. This legalistic view means that Carter can go ahead with the publication. One of the ethical issues raised is whether legal consideration should have power over what is printed. The other and perhaps more important issue raised is that trough a careful choice of words a journalist can publish a story which is accurate, legally acceptable, but is not necessarily true. This means that the media has the power of creating illusions based on accurate facts. If someone is deemed guilty in the public mind, this cannot be erased.

This is precisely what happens in the film. Information gets distorted and simplified. The difference between being investigated and being guilty disappears in the public mind. For Gallagher this mean that the worker’s union can ask his workers to stop working and his business grinds to a halt. It also has terminal effects for the people close him.

Moreover though, people who understand how the media works are able to use such a system for their own advantage. In the film, because Carter has become close to Gallagher he is able to manipulate the Department of Justice into clearing him as innocent.

Such concerns over how can the truth be best revealed, and what are the hurtles on the way to revealing it, are the basics of a journalists job description. For a journalist to reveal the truth he or she must have the journalistic vision to see through manipulation, but also a keen sense of morality. Whether contemporary journalists subscribe to such ideals is another question.

Thank You For Smoking (2005)

Reviewed on October 1, 2007.

Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is a spokesperson for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, the main lobby for American tobacco companies. While having sex with a journalist from The Washington Probe, Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes), Naylor reveals sensitive information that leads to a strongly negative article which has effects on his career.

The ethical issue raised is to what lengths the journalist may go to get the story. While Holloway displays a certain moral flexibility and does not consider the use of sex as a tool unethical, it is not necessarily clear that she is doing something wrong. Because Naylor does not explicitly imply that the information he is releasing is off the record it could be viewed as fair game. Nonetheless, this is clearly is an ethical issues in the public eye because the reporter falls out of favor when Naylor reveals the nature of their relationship.

This brings one to the issue of public morality. Because the reporting of Holloway in essence is accurate and truthful should she not be in the clear? No, because it is the way in which she has gathered her information that defames her in the public eye. The use of sexuality for professional interest is considered a taboo in most societies. It follows from there that in order to have public support journalistic ethics must incorporate at minimum those values that the public considers uncompromisable. Whether public values are always appropriate, and whether innovation in these areas is possible, or desirable, is a matter for a longer discussion.

While journalistic ethics and values cannot be viewed as separate from the journalist, they must be appropriate and proportionate in the eyes of the society for them to accept the journalism produced by the media.

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