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date: 31 October 2020

Fictional Representations of Journalismlocked

  • Chad PainterChad PainterDepartment of Communication, University of Dayton


Since the earliest years of the film industry, journalists and journalism have played a leading role in popular culture. Scholars debate whether journalism films—and by extension television programs, plays, cartoons, comics, commercials, and online and interactive stories and games—are a distinct genre, or whether journalists are featured in a variety of genres from dramas to comedies and satires to film noir. They also debate whether a film needs to feature a journalist doing journalism as a primary character or whether having a journalist as a secondary character still counts as a “journalism” film.

Regardless, research into depictions of journalists in popular culture is important because the depictions influence public opinion about real-world journalists, as well as the credibility and public trust of the journalism field. Indeed, the influence might be greater even than the actual work performed by real-world journalists. Popular culture cultivates legend and myth, and this cultivation is especially true for a field such as journalism because the majority of the public will never see the inside of an actual newsroom. Popular culture myths about journalism focus on its normative role. Journalistic heroes are the foreign correspondents and investigative reporters who stand for community and progress. Journalistic villains are the lovable rogues, remorseful sinners, and unrepentant scoundrels who break journalistic norms and roles.

A wide range of heroes and villains have been depicted on the big and small screen. For every Woodward and Bernstein working tirelessly to expose a corrupt presidential administration in All the President’s Men, there is a Chuck Tatum hiding an injured man in order to keep an exclusive in Ace in the Hole. For every Murphy Brown, a prominent and award-winning investigative journalist and anchor, there is a Zoe Barnes in House of Cards who has sex with sources and knowingly publishes false information. Many of the most interesting depictions, however, feature a character who has aspects of heroism and villainy. For example, Megan Carter in Absence in Malice attempts to be a watchdog reporter but destroys lives with her mistakes. Viewers ultimately are left with the idea that Carter will become a better journalist because of the lessons she has learned during the course of the film.

Due to the potential impact of these depictions, entertainers must hold themselves to a higher standard to fulfill their discursive role within the broader republic. Entertainment programming needs a positive ethical code because it helps inform citizens by raising questions, offering incisive observations, and voicing marginalized perspectives. The code is in its nascent stages, but it is past time for media ethicists to develop a social responsibility theory for entertainment and amusement, the dominant role of almost all media.


  • Communication Studies

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