5 films to help you think like a journalist

Tips on reporting and writing from Woodward, 60 Minutes – and Ron Burgundy.

5 great journalism films to fuel your storytelling

In our work with communicators, we’re always offering sage advice like, “think like a reporter” and “write like a journalist.”

But what does that really mean? Here are five of my favorite journalism movies that offer great tips on reporting and writing:

1. “The Paper” (1994).

This entertaining, often-overlooked film takes place in one long, agonizing day in the newsroom of a fictional New York tabloid. Metro Editor Henry Hackett (Michael Keaton) is trying to uncover the truth behind two kids wrongfully accused of murder while weighing an offer to jump to a pretentious New York Times-like broadsheet and watching his wife and top reporter (the great Marisa Tomei) threaten to give birth in his office.

Chaos ensues as Keaton pushes to nail down the story before the presses run that evening. At one point, two rival reporters fight for dibs on the story, and one says:

“You wanna cover Brooklyn, then cover Brooklyn. But let me tell you something, it’s a little tough to do from a barstool in Manhattan.”

And that’s tip No. 1: Be a better reporter.

You can’t write like a journalist if you don’t report like a journalist. The best stories don’t walk into your makeshift home office and introduce themselves. Go find them—even if that means, in this COVID-restricted environment—working the phones like an obsessed telemarketer.

2. “All the President’s Men” (1976).

Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) are chasing the story of the Watergate break-in, and they’re stuck. Woodward heads to his favorite underground garage to meet his confidential source, Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), who utters his now-famous line to the perplexed reporter:

Deep Throat: “Follow the money.”

Woodward: “What? Where?”

Deep Throat:  “I can’t tell you that . . . Just follow the money.”

Enter tip No. 2: Make numbers your friends.

Communicators, like reporters, need to understand numbers, whether in a budget or the latest data on climate change that could affect your business and industry. Your organization holds a treasure trove of data. Identify a trend, find a human example, and you’ve got a story that would make even Ben Bradlee proud.

3. “The Insider” (1999).

Based on actual events, this tale of intrigue and suspense follows 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) as he tries to convince a Big Tobacco researcher Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) to blow the whistle on the industry’s efforts to cover up the health risks of cigarettes. Fearing a lawsuit, 60 Minutes pulls its punches on the story and is later castigated by The New York Times, leading to this dramatic moment:

60 Minutes Producer Don Hewitt: “It’s old news. We’ll be OK. These things have a half-life of 15 minutes.”

Mike Wallace: “No, that’s fame. Fame has a 15-minute half-life. Infamy lasts a little longer.”

Which leads us to tip No. 3: If your mothers says she loves you, check it out.

Communicators hate the approval process because it’s restrictive and cumbersome. Instead of waiting for rejection, try collaborating with the approvers. Let them know what you’re trying to accomplish, and ask for their help to follow the rules and still publish a story worth reading. Best way to earn their trust: Check your facts.

4. “His Girl Friday” (1940).

Adopted from the play, “The Front Page,” the film follows Morning Post Editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) and his former ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), who is also his ex-wife.

When Russell shows up to announce she’s getting remarried, Grant hatches a plot to win her back by enticing her to write a deadline story to save a wrongfully convicted man from the gallows. As the film hurtles to its hilarious conclusion, Grant hovers over Russell as she bangs out the story:

Walter: “Aren’t you going to mention The Post?”

Hildy: “I did that. Right here in the second paragraph.”

Walter: “Who’s gonna read the second paragraph?”

Which bring us to tip No. 4: Whatever else you do, write a good first sentence.

Our readers are easily distracted, so get the big stuff right:

  • Get my attention with a compelling image.
  • Make me to click with an enticing headline and teaser.
  • Give me a running start with a snappy first sentence that will actually get me to that second paragraph.

5. “Anchorman” (2004).

He’s not Woodward or Bernstein, but Will Ferrell’s depiction of idiotic TV newsman Ron Burgundy is a classic. In one scene, the team discusses the need for more diversity in the newsroom, to which Burgundy offers his typically inane perspective:

“I could be wrong, but I believe Diversity was an old, old ship that was used during the Civil War.”

And here comes tip No. 5: You have important stories to write, so get at them.

There’s a lot of needless clutter in communications, but some topics demand your time and expertise, including these three:

  • Company culture. After the trauma of the pandemic, the rapid transition to remote work and “The Great Resignation,” organizations are scrambling to recruit and retain talent. Tell that story—in meaningful ways.
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion. Move beyond lip service paid to diversity, and write insightful stories about what DE&I means to your business, your industry and your workplace.
  • Environmental, Social & Governance initiatives. Translate those dense sustainability reports into compelling stories that employees, customers and the news media care about.

Jim Ylisela is co-owner and founder of Ragan Consulting Group. RCG specializes in corporate communications training, consulting and strategic counsel. Schedule a call with Kristin Hart to learn how we can help you improve your communications. Follow RCG on LinkedIn here and subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.


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