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Home > Publications > Quill > Documentary captures real-life journalism


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Thursday, September 27, 2007
Documentary captures real-life journalism

Andy Schotz

For years, I carried a list in my wallet of great journalism movies, courtesy of one of my college professors. It was wonderfully helpful whenever I needed a recommendation at the video store.

The list is gone, but my affection for films about the news business, and how they let us examine and enjoy our craft from afar, is ingrained.

I loved “All the President’s Men” and “The Year of Living Dangerously,” which were on my professor’s list.

But Hollywood also gives us ditzy fluff like Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte prancing around as newshounds in “I Love Trouble.”

Or Clint Eastwood, as a reporter in “True Crime,” digging for the truth in a death-row case — without taking any notes.

In recent years, Hollywood hasn’t given journalism junkies much substance to choose from.

Thankfully, I found something authentic in May at the Maryland Film Festival.

“The Paper,” a documentary that will be shown on public television in December, puts us in a college newsroom.

Director Aaron Matthews stuck with a group of Penn State University journalists through a semester of challenging news coverage, a worrisome circulation drop and editor-reporter tension.

We watch at least two explosive issues ignite at The Daily Collegian. We feel the backlash of a PR department artfully circumvented by a staff writer.

In a semester of real-life journalism, ethical dilemmas and questions were bound to crop up.

How nasty of a rant should be allowed in a published letter?

Does a reporter’s connection to a controversial topic make her better able to write about it or unable to be neutral?

Should a paper struggling to maintain readership offer sexier, more frivolous stories?

Matthews said after the screening that he shot 350 hours of footage for his 78-minute film, so he had to drop a few story lines.

I asked him more about his movie in an e-mail interview.

“From the start, I figured that journalism’s ethical questions would drive this film,” he wrote. “The ethical issues inherent in journalism (and in documentary film) are largely what attracted me to the project. And I found that ethical dilemmas, both big and small, arose nearly every day in the Daily Collegian’s newsroom.

“The debates and discussions surrounding, for example, what constitutes news, the lack of diversity in the newsroom, the lack of access to public officials, how to deal with dropping circulation, ended up raising the most salient modern media issues. Plus, I felt they made for exciting cinema.”

The Daily Collegian was a fitting stage for the story Matthews told about journalism. We got more than a glimpse of an emerging flock of news gatherers, at an operation and campus large enough to mirror life at a small-city daily.

“The film shows young people struggling with journalism’s ethical questions for the first time in their lives,” Matthews wrote to me. “And just like the professional media, sometimes they don’t always get it right. … By the same token, it was heartening to be around such hard-working, committed dedicated young people.

“What’s refreshing about this college newsroom is that there’s conversation about ethical issues. There’s debate about them. People aren’t resigned or jaded, and that’s encouraging.”

I readily confess to being a journalism wonk. Any day, I’ll watch a panel of reporters talk about their work instead of watching Spider-Man fight computer-generated evil.

I particularly recommend “The Paper,” though, to anyone who produces a newspaper, or reads one. It tells a story, it shows truth, and it generates reactions, without taking sides. I consider that a successful documentary.

The Q&A session with Matthews and students from the film instantly turned lively when professional journalists in the audience argued with each other about how The Daily Collegian covered one event.

We had a healthy dose of wrangling.

As Matthews noted, the more discussion, the better when it comes to journalism ethics. Let’s stay sharp; let’s keep having those debates.


“The Paper” is scheduled to be shown on PBS on Dec. 11 as part of the Independent Lens series. Check local listings at www.pbs.org/independentlens as the date approaches.

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