Investigative journalism in film

Investigative journalism that probes into the hidden practices of those who hold political power is in decline. There are a number of reasons for this, such as lack of resources available to editors to commission long investigative projects, massive demand for 24/7 news, the rise of ‘churnalism’ and the dependency on PR sources, the media constituting politics as entertainment. But despite the decline in their prominence, it remains some of the most essential work that can be done in the press’s mission of holding the powerful to account.

So what does the representation of investigative journalism in cinema say about this essential journalistic practice? If we understand exposing the secrets of those in power as such a necessary part of the free press, does its representation in film present the exposing of those secrets as just as courageous and democratically necessary? Or does it simply constitute this journalism as part of a wider political system by focussing on political ramifications rather than social ones?

Tom McCarthy’s 2015 film Spotlight offers an insight into one of the most groundbreaking pieces of investigative journalism of the 21st century – the exposing of the widespread sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests. The focus of the film is on the process of the team’s research and writing of the story, with the aftermath presented only in the final scene in which the Boston Globe is overrun with phone calls reporting instances of sexual abuse from priests and a list of places where these scandals occurred.

So how does this film represent investigative journalism as essential to any democratic political system? The crux of the matter comes when Mark Ruffalo’s Michael Rezendes finds documents that prove a high-ranking Cardinal had been informed of the abuse and ignored it. He argues that they need to publish their findings immediately, but his boss Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), calmly insists that they need to hold off from publishing until they can expose the whole system, saying ‘we need the full scope; that’s the only thing that will put an end to this.’

In this sense, Spotlight rises above the politics of investigative journalism and focuses on the act of exposing injustice to the public. Robinson downplays Rezendes’ fears that rival newspapers might get hold of the story, or even that more victims may suffer in the short term and tells him to focus on finding evidence to expose the remaining 86 priests.

This is where the film differs slightly from Steven Spielberg’s The Post, which explores the Washington Post’s exposing of the U.S. government’s mishandling of the Vietnam War; the implications within the film are far more political. Meryl Streep’s Katherine Graham, owner and publisher of the paper, deals with multiple pressures from board members and editors warning of the professional and legal implications of publishing government documents, such as ostracisation from White House communication, the financial collapse of the paper, and legal action.

In this sense, where Spotlight leans away from political consequences of choosing to publish, The Post presents them as the primary concern of investigative journalism which moves the act of journalism into the political sphere itself and away from one in which political powers are held to account. However, whilst The Post leans towards political consequences, the film still presents the democratic necessity of investigative journalism in resistance to these consequences; the documents are published despite the potential repercussions. In both films, journalism that exposes injustice and holds power to account is seen to resist political consequence, placing it in a sphere outside of the power of the establishment, designed and operating solely to hold it to account.

The way that film presents investigative journalism as a political act then shows that the process of exposing the secrets of those in power is inextricably linked to power itself. Repercussions will always follow, but it is up to journalists, and those that represent the experiences of those journalists in film (and other media) to stand up to those repercussions, portraying investigative journalism as outside of and uninfluenced by those in power that they seek to hold to account.

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Ryan Norman

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January 2022
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