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The portrayal of journalists in the movies has, over the years, helped instill an understanding of what journalism is and what journalists do. Image: The Naaz Cinema in Mumbai, India/ Shutterstock
The portrayal of journalists in the movies has, over the years, helped instill an understanding of what journalism is and what journalists do. Image: The Naaz Cinema in Mumbai, India/ Shutterstock

Image: The Naaz Cinema in Mumbai, India / Shutterstock



Greatest Hits from a ‘Journalism in the Movies’ Course

As part of our teaching at Columbia University in New York, we introduce our students to the idea that supporting journalism and the flow of quality information is essential for society and helps preserve democracy.

Students in our journalism school are well aware of the norms and traditions of the Fourth Estate — and the vital role the press can play in holding those in power to account — yet students in other parts of the university often are not.

But how society understands the role of media affects whether or not governments and the public will support and protect quality journalism — so teaching about the importance of journalism is key to making the case for why it matters.

The portrayal of journalists in the movies has, over the years, helped instill an understanding of what journalism is and what reporters do even if Hollywood has, of course, glamorized, satirized, or oversimplified. So last year we decided to teach a course on “Journalism in the Movies.”

Each week, we assigned feature films and documentaries from around the world to help our students better understand what journalism is, what it can or should be, and how society’s understanding of the media has evolved. We loved introducing the class to inspiring and brave reporters whose work we admire and we used films as a way of talking about the need for investigative watchdogs, journalism ethics, and free expression laws.

We opened up our class to students across the university and we had undergraduates and PhD students, film studies majors, journalists, and master’s students from the international affairs and policy school attend. They came from all over, including Cambodia/Mexico, Saudi Arabia, China, India, Israel, and the UK as well as the US. As well as watching films, they blogged and wrote about journalism in their own countries or profiled global muckrakers whom they had studied and interviewed. Our semester inspired us. We’re convinced this could become a classic course for our students.

We began with the well-known films, which it turned out the class had not seen before: “The Front Page” and “Good Night, and Good Luck” nicely covered some of the history of early 20th-century journalism in the US such as the move to professionalism and the view of journalists holding power to account. But took at reporting on screen from a broader, global perspective and assigned films from all over the world, and invited a couple of directors and producers to class.

Below is a selection of our favorites from outside the US and UK. Some glorify journalists and show their bravery and tenacity, others satirize the complicity of corporate owners and governments and the relentless quest for attention and clicks. This is a starter list that complements a recent GIJN story on must-see investigative documentaries from around the world. Please send us your favorites.


Mo and Me (2006)

This documentary covers the life of Mo Amin, Africa’s foremost news photographer, who covered many of the major events of the 20th century on the continent. Made by Amin’s son, Ibrahim, the audience gets a front seat to reporting of the Ethiopian famine, the regime of the Ugandan president-for-life Idi Amin, and other historic events covered by a charismatic but complicated TV journalist.

A Thousand Cuts (2021)

Through the travails faced by Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa, co-founder of the Philippine news site Rappler, this documentary exposes how populist autocrats suppress independent journalism through “a thousand cuts” — harassment lawsuits, unrelenting trolling, insults, threats, and lies that undermine the legitimacy of watchdog reporting.

While We Watched (2022)

The pressure on Indian media has increased enormously since Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected. Since then, journalists have been investigated, threatened, and killed — and this documentary examines these attacks through the prism of the last major independent TV station in the country, NDTV. The film chronicles the career of seasoned journalist Ravish Kumar and the bravery of his colleagues as their lives unravel. Kumar keeps his eyes on the stories that matter and is the target of organized harassment, all while the newsroom loses staff so often that farewell party cakes appear regularly.

Writing With Fire | The Fearless Bravery of Khabar Lahariya and India’s Women Journalists (2022)

This documentary is about an intrepid, all-woman news outlet, Khabar Lahariya, founded in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in 2002. The women citizen journalists, armed with cellphone cameras, persist as they investigate and report on controversial issues like local elections, rape, and illegal mining. The filmmakers followed Meera Jatav, who runs the newsroom, and several other reporters as they are dismissed, harassed, and even groped while reporting in rural India. Even more impressive: these inspiring women journalists are self-taught — many had never used cellphones before becoming citizen reporters — and come from Dalit castes, groups which face widespread discrimination in Indian society as “untouchable.”

Collective (2019)

A group of Romanian sports journalists blow the lid off of the country’s collapsed and corrupt health care system after the fall of Communism, demonstrating that sometimes the most thorough reporting is not done by journalists on a beat but by those who approach an issue from the outside. The reporters here began by interviewing burn victims from a fire in the Collective nightclub and ended up exposing the pervasive system of corrupted procurement processes. Despite the outrageous misconduct uncovered, the public’s response to the exposé was mixed, and reminds us of the backfire problem when covering corruption. Sometimes the best investigations can inadvertently make audiences feel the system is hopelessly rigged and discourage active civic participation — or even push citizens into the arms of autocrats who tap into mass discontent.

Navalny (2022)

This documentary profiles the late Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who used YouTube and other social media platforms to expose the corruption and abuse of power by the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin. This story about Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation introduced students to new forms of muckraking by nontraditional journalists and activists, who combine social media and open source reporting techniques to find evidence of wrongdoing.


Peepli [Live] (2010)

Bollywood loves remakes, and this is a clever Indian version of the 1951 US film “Ace in the Hole” directed by Billy Wilder — based on a true story that took place in the 1920s. Building on the long-simmering tragedy of farmer suicides in India, the film is a portrait of Natha, an Indian farmer who considers ending his own life so his family can receive compensation from the government. The story grips the nation and mayhem ensues after an amoral journalist encourages Natha to go through with the act to provide a more sensational story. It’s a funny, sad, and colorful black comedy.

La Dictadura Perfecta (2014)

A black comedy made by Mexican director Luis Estrada about a corrupt Mexican governor who hires a fictional TV station to make him look good after he’s filmed accepting a suitcase of cash. Money laundering, a kidnapping of baby twins, and blatant lying and media manipulation ensue. There are no good guys in this film, which delves into the interplay of the graft rampant within the Mexico City establishment and the absolute corruption of the local politicians in this small town.

Mr. Jones (2019)

Welsh journalist Gareth Jones witnessed the Ukrainian famine in the 1930s and bravely published dozens of articles about the mass starvation in the region — a consequence of Soviet agricultural policies — all of which were ignored. This film, produced in Poland, shows us the sobering limits of investigative reporting and the times when journalists who create the first draft of history are remembered only later for getting the story right. The film vividly captures the contrast between Jones and the now-discredited Moscow correspondent for The New York Times, Walter Duranty, who was hobnobbing with Communist Party leaders and collecting art instead of covering the starvation.

The Best is Yet to Come [Chinese-language only] (2020)

Even after class ended, we kept coming across films we wanted to watch and discuss with our students. This film, set in 2003 just after the SARS outbreak, is hard to find, as the Chinese government censored it soon after it appeared. It tells the story of Chinese journalists who looked into the widespread discrimination against people with hepatitis B — and exposed the cottage industry of fake medical reports that sprang up at the time.


Dr. Anya Schiffrin is the director of the technology, media, and communications specialization at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Sheila Coronel is director of the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University’s School of Journalism.

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