On the Importance of Journalism – Spotlight, Truth and Student Media

 

I know, I know. It’s probably the last thing you’d like to hear (or read) about after weeks of controversy, speculation, #WorstDressed and #AskHerMore. The Oscars. Or as the actress Bette Midler put it, ’the awards show where Leonardo DiCaprio is ”overdue” but black people can ”wait till next year.”’

 

But bare with me. I’m not going to write about white privilege, institutional racism or how we’re all relieved that Leo finally won (even though we all know he really peaked in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape), as important as these topics are. What I want to linger on for just a little more is the film that, to the surprise of many and disappointment of some, won Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards: Spotlight.

 

It was a surprise (even Morgan Freeman, who presented the award, seemed unable to conceal his astonishment) because Spotlight was outshone in the ceremony by an epic one man’s battle-against-the-odds revenge journey with Tom Hardy and an epic sort-of-feminist action-thriller-extravaganza with Tom Hardy. But, at least to me, it was a really nice surprise for a change.

 

Spotlight itself is an unexpected treat: a clean, crisp and, according to reporters such as The Guardian’s Alicia Shepard, an authentic portrayal of investigative journalism. Although the basic narrative it offers—based on a true story about a group of journalists who in the early 2000s exposed the systemic sex abuse of children by Catholic priests in Boston—reeks of Oscars-worthy heroism, the way in which it is told largely avoids the pitfalls of excessive sentimentality that we’ve come to expect from Hollywood biographies. In this respect it also fares much better than the other Hollywood film about journalism that was released last year, James Vanderbilt’s Truth, which was part of the Glasgow Film Festival programme a couple weeks back. Starring Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford as the 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes and legendary anchor Dan Rather, respectively, the film tells the story of the Killian documents controversy that led to Mapes’ firing from CBS and the end of Rather’s career.

 

Although Spotlight is much more subtle and sophisticated than Truth, which cannot help but indulge in moments of heroic pathos (watch out for overpowering score and slow motion footage of Redford intercut with shots of people clapping), both films do something important. They illustrate what journalism, essentially, is about—what it can be at its finest (Spotlight), what is at stake when mistakes are made (Truth), and, perhaps most importantly, the amount of work that goes into—or should go into—telling a story that is not only true but accepted as such (both). The amount of hours spent on digging up documents in archives and courthouses, making phone calls, checking facts from multiple sources and—what seems to be Truth screenwriters’ favourite phrase—asking questions, is staggering. I hesitate to claim that these films are ‘authentic’ or ‘truthful’ descriptions of what it is like being a journalist—of course they’re not, they’re dramatizations, and of a special kind of journalism at that, the investigative kind. Nor do I want to be naïve and insist that all journalists are motivated by some higher cause. But, for me at least, they succeed in conveying a sense of appreciation for the hard work done by the people in that profession, so often met up by insults and harsh criticism rather than applauds and Oscar statues.

 

And what a topical subject for us as students of Glasgow University. Last week, the editors of Glasgow Guardian reported on the SRC elections to much controversy (see here https://glasgowguardian.co.uk/2016/03/01/src-ran-movember-at-a-loss/ and here https://glasgowguardian.co.uk/2016/03/03/a-response-to-the-tab/) and, as the new SRC president Ameer Ibrahim and VPs start their term, the fate of student media on campus needs to be addressed. As far removed as the world of Boston Globe and CBS seems to be from our little hill, Spotlight and Truth can still say something about the importance of sustaining student-led organisations and societies that speak to and for students, such as Subcity, Glasgow Guardian, GUM, GUST, Qmunicate and others. Apart from the overall significance of journalism, these films also illustrate the importance of good management and adequate support—my message to Ameer Ibrahim and others at the SRC.

 

On a more personal note: if you’re in the same situation as I am—about to graduate, suddenly waking up to the realisation that you have no idea what you want to do with your life—watching a film like Spotlight could make a difference. Someone older and wiser would perhaps advise you never to base your career plans on the information you get from a Hollywood film, but I say that a little dreaming never hurt anybody. And, if after your movie night you feel like journalism or ‘something to do with media’ (that’s me) might be for you, get in touch with GUM or one of the above and get involved with student media. You might not be applauded on an Oscar stage, but, I guarantee you, you will get to ask questions.

 

           

Truth and Spotlight in cinemas now. For other entertaining and intelligent portrayals of journalism see the Danish TV drama Borgen and HBO’s Newsroom.

 

Watch this space: GUM editorial positions open for applications soon.

 

By Hanna Markkanen

 

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