Sandford Borins
Management professor Sandford Borins' new study looks at the ways investigative journalists are popularly portrayed — and how this can change audiences' opinions of the field. (Photo by Ken Jones)
Tuesday, November 12 - 2019
Alexa Battler

In one of the most iconic scenes in All the President’s Men (ATPM), a mysterious figure emerges from the shadows of a deserted parking garage. He tells Bob Woodward, a young, hungry reporter, “Just follow the money.”

The 1976 classic movie established several elements that came to characterize investigative journalism movies — and how people value the field itself, according to a new study by Sandford Borins, professor in the Department of Management at U of T Scarborough.

“The average person doesn’t know much about journalism at work, because they rarely come into contact with journalists. They only see the output,” Borins says. “Movies about investigative journalism are the primary way that the public learns about what investigative journalists do.”

Borins analyzed six American movies about investigative journalism made in the U.S. in the last 40 years, beginning with ATPM, which follows two journalists’ successful exposure of the Watergate scandal.

Movies in the same genre often incorporate fables — structural elements, such as character types, themes and plot points, that recur across multiple stories. Borins’ study, co-authored with scholar and author Beth Herst and published in Journalism Practice, seeks to understand what fables exist in the subgenre of investigative journalism movies.

To define the fable, Borins used a unique methodology, in which he identified 14 core elements of the investigative journalism fable established in ATPM and dubbed it the “heroic investigative journalism fable.” He discovered that James Hamilton, an economist at Stanford University, had studied applicants for the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism and found a similar pattern.

In the heroic investigative fable, a team of journalists begin to research, then gather support from their editor to pursue a story. The journalists interview their sources and sift through mountains of documents, piecing the paper trail together. Despite all opposition, the story is published, eventually leading to social change.

A unique element of the fable, and of the subgenre of investigative journalism movies, is the lack of screen time given to the journalists’ personal lives.

“In typical journalism movies, there’s always the love story in the back, and these movies purposely say, ‘That’s not what we’re talking about,’” Borins says. “I think that communicates to the audience a level of seriousness, that this is really important and it demands our complete attention.”

Borins then used the fable to examine five other movies. Two were stories of clear success that embodied the heroic investigative fable (ATPM and Spotlight). Two were stories in which the impact of the investigative journalism was lessened by conflicts with corporate managers of media outlets (Good Night and Good Luck and The Insider). The final two were counter-fables, in which the investigative journalists ultimately failed (Truth and Kill the Messenger).

Borins says these movies can create unrealistic expectations of investigative journalism. In the real world, editors may decide an investigative journalists’ work is too risky to publish, thus, the story never makes it to film. People may also confuse breaking news reporting, meaning “audiences might come to the erroneous conclusion that investigative journalism is typical.

“Hollywood always has a tendency to hype its heroes,” Borins says. “While there are occasional movies about failed investigative journalism, such as Kill the Messenger and Truth, the movies about successful investigative journalism have been more successful.”

The study, supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, cites several works on the impact of movies. These narratives can shape a person’s beliefs, their social and policy views, their activities in the public sphere and even inspire activism.

Borins notes that narratives in these movies can change the way people view investigative journalism and its role in a democratic society. He says understanding investigative journalism is increasingly important, particularly in the U.S. Journalists now face shifting public opinions, allegations of “fake news” and mass closures of newspapers. However, Borins is hopeful. 

“The fact that you have an administration led by someone for whom lying is like breathing and enablers who try to cover this up has stimulated investigative journalism at the national level in the U.S.,” Borins says.

“And journalists in different countries are aware of each other’s efforts.”