Heroes or scoundrels: how popular culture portrays journalists and what that means for the 2016 campaign

Reporter are glorified and vilified in popular culture. Roger H. Goun , CC BY-SA

Images of journalists have appeared in popular culture since ancient times. Today, those images are more conflicted than ever, with the advent of multimedia and the growth of large groups of people who get their information primarily from social media, the clergy and news programs that speak to their specific political, social, religious and economic beliefs.

In movies such as the recent Spotlight and Truth, journalists are portrayed as heroes serving the public interest. But such films and TV shows as Lou Grant in the 1970s and HBO’s The Newsroom are few and far between. More often, journalists are portrayed as treacherous and ambitious (Absence of Malice), or annoying and obnoxious (The Right Stuff), or downright sleazy (think reporter Rita Skeeter in the Harry Potter series).

No wonder Senator Ted Cruz got applause and cheers during the October 28 Republican presidential debate when he criticized the CNBC moderators and declared that their questions “illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media. This is not a cage match.”

Huge variations in portrayals of the press

Our database at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of images of journalists in popular culture has more than 86,000 items on journalists, public relations practitioners and media in films, television, radio, fiction, commercials and cartoons.

Our recent book, Heroes and Scoundrels: The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture, shows how fictional characters are likely to shape the public’s impressions of the news media at least as much as if not more than the actual press does.

That’s because, unfortunately, citizens mostly remember the numerous films and TV programs where anonymous journalists are shown as noisy and obnoxious, traveling in packs, armed with cameras and microphones, and chasing and harassing lead actors.

These scenes validate the increasingly common belief that journalists are obtrusive and self-serving, caring little about serving the public and worrying more about their own economic, political and personal needs.

Adding to those impressions is the current inclination of voters to hate any journalist who questions their preferred presidential candidate or socioeconomic-political beliefs, and the image of the journalist in popular culture takes quite a beating.

The frantic press scramble at the home of suspected terrorists in San Bernardino didn’t portray TV journalists at their finest.

Images of a biased press undermine trust in reporting

This image of a harassing, biased press undermines the public’s trust in the news media.

More than ever, the public seems to have turned against reporters, concluding that journalists don’t serve the public interest. The view is that reporters should not harass innocent people, with “innocent people” often translated in the public mind to be a favorite political candidate whom they believe the news media are out to get.

The fractured public, divided by political agendas and such hot-button issues as terrorism, immigrants, abortion and health care, seems to be rejecting any journalist who, in their eyes, harasses the honest person they believe represents their point of view.

Any tough question and any challenge is labeled as the reporter’s antagonistic bias toward the candidate and is immediately rejected by an audience who came to cheer and not to question who and what their candidate is all about.

It doesn’t matter to an audience of supporters whether their candidate is stretching the truth or just plain lying about an issue. They hate the person challenging their choice, and more often than not, that person is a journalist.

Yet Americans still want a free press

Yet surveys continue to show that most Americans want a free press that is always there to protect them from authority and give them a free flow of diverse information.

At the same time, surveys also show that most Americans harbor a deep suspicion about the media. They worry about their perceived power, their meanness and negativism, their attacks on institutions and people, their intrusiveness and callousness, their arrogance and bias.

Unfortunately, most film portrayals of journalists are black-and-white, often emphasizing the worst examples of the news media’s incompetence and wrongheadedness or, by contrast, depicting impossible standards of heroic investigation.

A poster for Call Northside 777. Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

It is not easy to depict the real work of the journalist, the long hours of research and reporting, the difficulty of piecing together complicated stories under deadline pressure, the tyranny of the clock and the nation’s obsession with pictures, quick sound bites and short short stories.

The few exceptions – “Call Northside 777” in the late 1940s, “All the President’s Men” in the late 1970s and now “Spotlight” in 2015 – cannot overcome the overwhelming image of the anonymous journalist who seems to have little regard for either the public or the truth.

It is much easier to show journalists at their worst in films and television programs. These images simply ratify opposition to journalists asking tough questions of favorite candidates or challenging any belief system that may be based on error and falsehoods.

No one wants to know that his or her emperor has no clothes. And too often, instead of blaming the person deceiving them, they blame the one exposing the deceit.

Candidates tell reporters what they can ask

Candidates such as presidential hopeful Donald Trump, with the full support of his constituencies, have gone so far as to tell journalists what to ask during public debates and that the questions should be less hostile. Ted Cruz said that Republican debates should be moderated by those who would vote in a Republican primary. A spokesperson for Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders told reporters not to ask about ISIS at a campaign event. Hillary Clinton’s campaign used a rope line) to keep reporters at a distance during a parade.

The minute a reporter challenges a favorite candidate, that candidate’s supporters stand up as one to complain that the reporter asking the question – not the candidate who refuses to answer the question – is at fault.

But it is the journalist’s job to probe, expose and challenge statements made by political candidates, even if that is a job that the public has come to resent.

A scene from the 1940 film His Girl Friday shows reporters and editors as both heroic and self-serving. Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

We appear to be living in an age where the public is not interested in civil dialogue or an accurate and fair analysis of the candidates and issues. This situation poses major problems for any journalist trying to navigate in a divided and fractious society.

Whether the journalist is considered a hero or a scoundrel is depending more and more on a citizen’s personal belief system and how that affects their specific and often biased view of the world around them.

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