As print media faces an uncertain future, the medium of film takes the online vs. print battle to task, writes Dermot O’Rourke
Otwo had an awkward experience at a recent press screening of a film. It was the watching-a-graphic-sex-scene-with-your-parents kind of awkward, except worse. At the press screening, the members of the film press community were invited to an advance showing of Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, Contagion. Representing the fresh face of student journalism, Otwo stood awkwardly to the side waiting for the screening to start in film critic uniform – hip man bag, coffee and bad scarf – and eavesdropped on conversations.
This moment, I’m sure you can imagine, was quite uncomfortable in the presence of the national print media collective. It certainly caused a few to shift in their seats and prompted some nervous laughter around the room.
Whether this was a reaction to the argument on screen or recognition of an underlying and uncomfortable truth, this moment in Contagion was representative of a depiction of current media and journalism trends that has become noticeable in recent times. It is significant that film is exploring the evolution of journalism and the resulting conflict between traditional print media and online journalism because, ultimately, film’s depiction undoubtedly influences how audiences will perceive that progression.
Aside from Jude Law’s crude declaration of the end of newspapers, films including State of Play (MacDonald, 2009) and the documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times (Rossi, 2011), have acknowledged the decline of the newspaper industry and the permanent change to the nature of journalism. In State of Play, Russell Crowe is a veteran reporter in a failing newspaper who must work with a fresh-faced blogger, played by Rachel McAdams (Wedding Crashers), to investigate a political conspiracy. Their relationship is reflective of film’s current portrayal of tensions between old and new media. Crowe’s character is fighting to stay relevant and continually doubts the credibility of the online media. He is cynical of McAdams’ paradoxical eagerness to write articles and simultaneous unwillingness to do, in his (and the film’s) view, “proper” journalism. While he is on the streets interviewing people and making phone calls, she is ignorant of traditional reporting and, symbolically, never has a pen to hand when it is required to write down crucial pieces of information.
Similarly, throughout Page One: Inside the New York Times, the Times’ journalists are constantly called on to defend their relevance to the public and other media outlets. In the film, the Times is portrayed as the single authoritative news source in America at a time when journalistic integrity is being diluted by online blogs that, in the journalists’ view, are really only recycling stories that appeared in their newspaper first.
In Page One, as in State of Play, online bloggers are labelled as antagonists; their apparent inferior reporting is responsible for not only the decline in newspaper sales but, more importantly, the overall quality of modern journalism. The films also recognise a worrying trend in newspapers: facing financial collapse and struggling to stay relevant, the newspapers further reduce the quality of journalism by releasing under-researched or unsubstantiated stories in order to get the scoop and sell papers.
Although all the films consider the print media to be the only credible form of journalism, they still lament for the old days of journalism. There is a nostalgic view of the journalist walking the street, hassling interviewees and meeting sources in shady bars. In both State of Play and Page One there are tributes to the Watergate scandal which is regarded by both as the pinnacle of ‘true’ journalism. In Page One there is a long sequence celebrating the journalists involved in Watergate, while in State of Play a conversation is secretly recorded in the Watergate hotel and celebrated as the moment of heroism for the journalists. The films imply that this kind of investigative reporting is lost and will not be possible in the new age of media.
These portrayals of the current trends in journalism come as a warning for audiences. Amidst the media-saturated society print newspapers remain the sole valid source for information.
This is best demonstrated in State of Play when the decision about the final publication of a conspiracy is left to Rachel McAdam’s blogger who decides that “a story this big, people should probably have newsprint on their hands when they read it”; an acknowledgement of the legitimacy and authority of the print newspaper. The films warn audiences that newspapers are still committed to true journalism, the kind epitomised in Watergate, and that the online media sources report with unknown motivations. In Contagion, when Jude Law’s blogger recommends a homeopathic treatment for a disease which results in public hysteria, it is later found out that he was paid for this recommendation by a company.
Although the emergence of online media marks a permanent paradigm-shift in journalism, recent films are trying to convey to audiences that the evolution should be received with caution and that, ultimately, print remains the principal form of record.