Roles of the Journalist, Part 1: The Detective

Welcome to my who-knows-how-many part series on the roles journalists play. I’ve wanted to write a series of journalism-based posts for a while, and after all the movies I’ve watched, articles I’ve read and reporting I’ve done, one of the most fascinating aspects of my career field is how, unlike most professions, the Journalist wears multiple hats.

And they don't all look like Kermit's. By the way, I honestly don't know why everyone's favorite Muppet reporter is interviewing the side of the Ghostbusters truck. So don't ask.
And they don’t all look like Kermit’s. By the way, I honestly don’t know why everyone’s favorite Muppet reporter is interviewing the side of the Ghostbusters truck. So don’t ask.

My observations come from a variety of sources, including my own experiences as a journalism student and freelancer. Meriam Webster defines the term “journalist” as “a person engaged in journalism; especially :  a writer or editor for a news medium.” But that’s only what we appear to do in the eyes of the untrained media consumer. Our work takes us on wild rides, bores us sometimes and can sometimes even threaten our safety (just ask Richard Engel). We’re the ones who get to become cynical before everyone else, and then work to keep those people from becoming cynical because, hey, it’s our job.

And one of the coolest parts we get to play in the production of informing the public is that of…

The Detective

As a kid, I loved mystery stories. Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Cam Jansen and (yes, I admit it) Mary Kate and Ashley were some of my best friends. When I got older, Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took over my bookshelves, and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation became one of my favorite TV series. For a small period of time, I was even interested in becoming a gumshoe myself.

When I decided to join the Ranks of the Great Underpaid (a.k.a journalism school), I already knew the detective-style work reporters were able to do. Like many of my classmates, we looked to Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men as an example of what we could do with our intellect, voice and writing. Woodward and Bernstein took down a lying president and his corrupt cabinet with persistent reporting that law officials refused to do — what was to say we couldn’t do the same?

Just a glancing look at the movies shows how we often take up investigative work that police either aren’t doing adequately or aren’t doing enough. His Girl Friday in 1940 showed a journalist conducting a more thorough interview of a man on death row than the police. More recently, 2007’s Zodiac showed a newspaper cartoonist and a crime beat reporter working just as hard as the San Francisco police in the based-on-a-true-story account their investigation into Zodiac Killer’s spree in California.

Pictured: the rare occurrance of two
Pictured: a reason to have Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhaal in the same picture on my blog. You’re welcome, fellow females.

“But, Kate!” you say. “These are just movies. It’s just the liberal Hollywood elite glorifying their journalist friends and dramatizing real events so they can make millions of dollars at the box office.”

I admit, there was quite a bit of drama added to journo-cinema like Absence of Malice. We might not be Robert Redfords and Rosalind Russells (and our work might not come with David Fincher direction and an editor played by Cary Grant), but a lot of what is seen in the movies is very accurate, albeit made more exciting by sharp dialogue and suspense-inducing soundtracks.

Take my experience at The Chicago Reporter. We weren’t tracking down a serial killer or proving a convicted man innocent or taking down a politician. We were taking a critical look at Department of Child and Family Services cases that ended in the death of a child. And although sitting in a cubical for two weeks while creating a detailed database out of every child death report from 2000 to 2011 wasn’t as glamorous as flying to Florida to harass a financier of the Republican National Committee like in All the President’s Men (rather, it was more heart-wrenching and required a glass of wine at the end of the day), it was just as important a job. It also got reporter Maria Zamudio writing “Dying for Attention,” a story that would inspire the Chicago Tribune to write a similar report and the Chicago Headline Club to award our team a Peter Lisagor Award.*

*It also got DCFS rather angry at us, but that’s a story for another post.

The Reporter‘s staff is just a small example of how journalists take on the role of detective in their work. Some of the best journalism spanning from Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Nelly Bly’s account of a mental institution to Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate investigation and Veronica Guerin’s reports on the Irish drug mobs has been done because journalists had the gumshoe guts to do the jobs that law enforcers don’t have the time, patience or interest to complete. That’s just one of the duties we perform and one of my many reasons for loving my profession.

Stay tuned for more Roles of the Journalist entries, and feel free to give your own input in the comments.

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