Recently a few friends and I saw “All The President’s Men.” The 1976 film about the Watergate burglary in 1972, the subsequent cover up by the White House and eventual resignation of President Nixon in 1974 featured Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford playing Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Robert Woodward.
As I watched the two-hour film unfold, these young investigative reporters ran down leads, established facts, verified sources, and pecked out their stories on typewriters– desktop computers didn’t enter newsrooms until the early 1980s. Constantly on landline phones in the newsroom checking out facts and sources, using street-corner telephone booths when they were checking out leads in the field, and jotting notes hurriedly as they interviewed and re-interviewed sources, the technology was clearly state-of-the-art for the early 1970s. The film (drawn from the book of the same name) is a textbook description of how investigative reporters go about their work on a daily basis.
If “Law and Order,” “NYPD Blue” and “Blue Bloods” are police procedurals detailing the steps that patrolmen and detectives investigate a case, develop theories, establish facts, and make arrests, then “All the President’s Men” is a journalism procedural much like the recent Oscar nominated film “Spotlight” that followed a Boston Globe team investigating Catholic priests accused of abusing children and youth. A generation later than the Watergate burglary and Nixon’s resignation, a “Spotlight” reporter commenting on the film, said: “We talk on the phone, we do data entry, we look at court records. Good luck making that interesting!” Their newspaper stories published in 2002 became an Oscar-winning film in 2016.
Fast forward 40 years from the Washington Post reporters and nearly two decades since the Boston Globe pieces on the Catholic Church’s cover-up of abusive priests, and journalists today use an array of technologies that were unavailable then to journalists. Today reporters for print and digital media carry cell phones that double as recorders and memo takers, laptops and tablets; they access social media hourly, and write stories for both digital and print editions of newspapers and magazines. The range of technologies available to journalists in 2017 is stunning compared to their peers a mere generation or two earlier.
More obvious to readers is how much new digital technologies have “disrupted” the traditional organizational business of journalism and print media. Most Americans now get their news from screens: television network and cable news programs, Google, Facebook, and other digital media rather than print publications. With the loss of advertising revenue and subscribers to digital competitors, newspapers and magazines have cut back the number of reporters, reduced actual size of their printed product, and altered publishing schedules. Many newspapers and magazines have gone out of business. There is little question that new technologies have taken print media and given it a shaking similar to the onset of the telegraph ending the pony express over a century ago.
Digital and print media, of course, still employ reporters (the number of newspaper reporters have fallen from 57,000 in 1990 to 33,000 in 2015) who investigate drug abuse and crime, political corruption, corporate wrongdoing, educational failures, and medical scandals. ProPublica, The Texas Tribune, The Lens, BuzzFeed, Fusion, and other digital companies have investigative reporters as do national print media like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal.
With all of the new technologies creating “disruptions” in print media and the rise of digital-only news, has the daily work of journalists getting the story accurately changed since Washington Post reporters Bernstein and Woodward in the early 1970s and the Boston Globe team in the late-1990s?
Seeing all of the devices that reporters have at their fingertips, it surely appears that it has. Seeing contemporary journalists portrayed in films (e.g., “House of Cards,” the Australian series “The Code”), on their cell phones, clicking away at their Facebook and Twitter feeds, accessing various data bases, filling in spread sheets,and furiously tapping away at their laptops to meet a deadline would startle a Rip Van Winkle reporter alive in 1972 dropped into today’s newsroom.
Yet, I argue that one has to look past these powerful technologies to see what reporters do daily to get the full story correctly and write it up for their editors. The journalist procedural highlighted in “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight” remain today amidst all of the devices and information access.
I have looked at present-day advice that investigative journalists give to novices and, except for one or two points, none of the advice has to do with technologies. The advice is about knocking on doors, analyzing documents, interviewing and re-interviewing sources, getting new leads, sniffing out weird clues, working closely with editors, and writing clearly for readers that are at the heart of doing investigative journalism (see here, here, here, and here). Bernstein and Woodward, I would guess, would nod their heads in agreement with the advice.
The eye-catching technologies, while enormously helpful in getting and organizing information efficiently, do not alter the basic steps of the craft that first-rate journalists have to pursue in getting the story. While the technologies change over time, the legwork, tedious checking and re-checking of sources, figuring out what the essence of the story is,and writing clearly remain at the heart of journalists reporting their stories.
In Part 2, I look at teaching procedurals in film and story, the changes in technology over time, and the craft of teaching.