July 7, 2004

Summer prompts writers to create reading lists.

My colleague, Chip Scanlan, offers a number of fascinating books we can enjoy in a recent column, which I’ve printed and plan to use.

I thought about making a similar reading list for books about ethics. Then I thought again. (Please stifle your sigh of shock and relief. Contrary to the stereotype, even those of us who care about ethics like to have fun.)

After all, summer speaks to me of sun, fun, and puns. I’ll spare you the puns. But in the fun category, movies offer escape from the heat, and an entertaining way to watch journalistic ethical issues unfold.

Dr. Ink turned to Poynter librarian David Shedden for a list of movies back in 2001 when he answered a question about his favorite movie about journalism. His answer? “The Year of Living Dangerously,” 1982. I consider it a fascinating picture as well, fraught with ethical subtexts. I drew upon that list, too. And I want to thank David Shedden for his help once again.

So what are some movies that go well with buttered popcorn and salty ethics?

Absence of Malice,” which came out in 1982, still stands out as a popular movie that shows the ethical shortcomings the media faces when it comes to relationships with sources and investigative reporting. Written by a former executive editor of the Detroit Free Press, the screenplay brings a feeling of authenticity to the time and the journalism portrayed.

The Front Page,” a classic that graced the silver screen in 1931 (Ran as a TV series in 1945, 19481949, 1970, then was remade as a film in 1974), captured another age and angst. See The Paper,” 1994, for a more modern take on the challenges journalists face. Don’t miss the pressroom scene for the physical force that ethics can require.

Another classic, “Citizen Kane,” which premiered in 1941, offers a full range of ethical, and unethical, entanglements that seem as pertinent today as when it first came out.

On the broadcast front, the battle between business and journalism values takes fascinating twists and turns in such favorites as Network(from 1976), Broadcast News,” (from 1987), and The Insider (1999).

Below, I provide an incomplete list of movie titles, along with short comments from me, that you can consider checking out of your local video store for your entertainment and ethical enjoyment.

Feel free to post your favorite titles of movies about journalism that raise ethical quandaries. And enjoy the summer.

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Aly Colón is the John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Previously, Colón led…
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