Journalists have been at the centre of many films be it in comedies or in historic dramas. However, can it be claimed that Journalism can sit alongside the action and horror genres and be defined as a film genre of its own?
To answer this question the definition of what a film genre is must first be answered. Genre films have a familiarisation with one another, such as, the topic, the characters and the narrative. As author Barry Grant suggests: “Stated simply, genre movies are those commercial feature films that, through repetition and variation, tell familiar stories with familiar characters in familiar situations.” (Grant, 2012)
We can see this in affect with the horror genre and the western genre. Two examples of films with a clearly defined genre would be The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) and Django Unchained (2012) which both devote telling a story set primarily in the latter half of the 19th century in the American Old West. Both films have numerous common subjects between them which can be enlisted into the western genre.
However, Andrew Tudor outlines a fundamental problem of genre identification, he uses the term ‘the empiricist dilemma’ to argue that: “To take a genre such as the ‘western’, analyse it, and list its principal characteristics, is to beg the question that we must first isolate the body of films which are ‘westerns’. But they can only be isolated on the basis of the ‘principal characteristics’ which can only be discovered from the films themselves after they have been isolated.” (Cited in Gledhill 1985, 59) Robert Stam argues that “subject matter is the weakest criterion for generic grouping because it fails to take into account how the subject is treated.” (Stam 2000, p14).
There are no undisputed classifications of genres and there are often disagreements about the definition of specific genre types. Genres are ultimately a concept rather then something that is clearly defined. One person’s genre may be another person’s sub-genre. Themes in films don’t necessarily place a movie into a specific genre, as David Bordwell notes: “Any theme may appear in any genre.” (Bordwell 1989, p147). He backs up his statement by asking: “Are animation and documentary films genres or modes? If tragedy and comedy are genres, perhaps then domestic tragedy or slapstick is a formula.” (Bordwell 1989, p147). Bordwell offers a useful inventory of categories used in film, many of which have been accorded the status of genres by various commentators. His categories are as followed:
“Grouping by period or country (American films of the 1930s), by director or star or producer or writer or studio, by technical process (CinemaScope films), by cycle (the ‘fallen women’ films), by series (the 007 movies), by style (German Expressionism), by structure (narrative), by ideology (Reaganite cinema), by audience (‘teenpix’), by subject or theme (family film, paranoid-politics movies).” (Bordwell 1989, p148)
As seen in the categories stated by Bordwell there are numerous examples of genres, it is not just the subject that defines a genre but the budget, style, director, purpose and setting all have an effect on the genre type. Bordwell states that “one could argue that no set of necessary and sufficient conditions can mark off genres from other sorts of groupings in ways that all experts or ordinary film-goers would find acceptable”. (Bordwell, 1989, p147).
Defining movie genre is still a debated question amongst scholars with many like Bordwell (1989) and Stam (2000) arguing there are no set conditions in genres. While there are similarities and categories between films which can be connected many overlap one another making defining a film by one set genre is unclear.
Many writers about journalism films refer to them as genres. Matthew C. Ehrlich author of ‘Journalism in the Movies’ writes as though journalism is a genre of its own. When analysing the film The Front Page (1931) he says: “The Front Page is the prototype of the journalism film genre.” (Ehrlich, 2004, p20) Despite this it is still disputed whether or not journalism is a defined genre. It is more accurate to suggest that the journalism topic is one that transcends various types of films within a range of genres. To say that a film is a ‘genre movie’ suggests that it adheres to all the conventions of that genre. It is difficult to place journalism in a genre of its own as films that feature journalists rarely follow the same conventions. The films Borat (2006) and The Killing Fields (1984) are polar opposites in terms of content but both have the main character portraying a journalist. It would be hard to suggest that there is a journalism genre when the content of films is so diverse. Although as mentioned previously by Bordwell (1989) and Stam (2000) there are no set rules for genres.
If a film is going to be regarded as being in the journalism genre then it will be a film that mixes, crosses over and overlaps many other genres as well. Broadcast News (1987) is a perfect example of when genres overlap one another, thus making it difficult to place it into a single defined genre. The film is often described as a romantic comedy as the three main characters are entangled in a love triangle. The romance of the film is accompanied by comedy, be this in the hilarious scenarios the characters are in or the comedic lines in the script, however, the film takes part at a news station with all main characters portraying journalists. There is also the faint backdrop of journalism ethics that questions the realism of news and how it can be manipulated to give a story more impact. This type of movie is difficult to label as just a journalist genre but without the journalistic element the film would not have the same impact.
Films such as Ace in the Hole (1951) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957) are centred on journalistic issues throughout the majority of the film. Despite both being placed in the film-noir genre and having some slight drama element, journalism is the main subject of the film. Shattered Glass (2003) for example, has all the main characters portraying journalists, and the setting in based mainly in a newsroom. The subject of the film focuses on the state of modern American journalism with no other genre element being focused on. Shattered Glass was made solely to portray the events in journalism history and not another subject. The journalism subject cannot be replaced by another subject to tell the story therefore it’s essential to the film.
The Devil Wears Prada (2006) could be considered to be part of the journalism genre; however, it is with this type of picture where the definition of a journalist genre can be unclear. Although the characters are all portrayed as journalists in the fashion industry, this is only incidental. The main subject of the film is not about journalism but is instead centred on dealing with an atrocious demanding boss and how relationships are affected by overworking. The term for these types of journalism films has been called ‘secondary representations’ by Brian McNair. Although McNair is not a film scholar he makes some interesting notes on the differences between ‘primary representations’ (films such as Ace in the Hole) and ‘secondary representations’ in journalism films. He says: “Secondary representations may be concerned with the life issues which a person who just happens to be a journalist might encounter in or out of the working environment. Journalism may in this context function as an important plot device where the lead character’s journalistic status is principally a vehicle for establishing a certain kind of personality.” (McNair, 2010, p30) It is these secondary representations that would argue against there being a genre of journalism as they do not cover journalism issues and the only relevance to journalism these films have is that they have journalists in them.
Author Matthew C. Ehrlich talks about the wide scope of journalism in the movies and how they have changed. He cites the changes in the film industry when journalism films changed from screwball comedies to film noirs. He states that the film Citizen Kane (1941) marked a landmark in cinema and genre. He said: “[Citizen Kane] It marks the transition a transition from screwball journalism films of the 1930s to the journalism noir films of two decades to come. It presents a distinctly ambiguous stance towards the press, reproducing the myths of the journalism movie genre while highlighting the contradictions at their cores.” (Ehrlich, 2004, p69)
These noir films centred their stories on the press and were more inclined to portray the journalism subject seriously rather than use it as a gateway to comedy. For example, The Front Page (1931), was a comedy that was set in a press room but its subject of journalism was not the main focus. The movie focused on whether or not the main character would succeed in impressing his boss and if he would go back to his wife.
In order for a film to be a single journalism genre the subject matter of journalism should be at the heart of the film. Ehrlich states: “Just as the nature of truth is at the heart of journalism itself, so it is at the heart of journalism movies.” (Ehrlich, 2004, p11)
Although, it is argued that journalism films can be placed in the sub-genre category whether in romantic comedies or screwball comedies, this is where journalism is relevant in the film but it only plays the part of a characters career role. However, there are several films that are specific to the journalism subject and the plots of these films mainly focus on reporters trying to chase a story. Ehrlich goes on to describe the films: “Plots of the movies typically revolve around obstacles the reporter faces in chasing the story and the consequences of that chase. As in other genre movies, the conflicts and tension that develop between the characters represent broader conflicts and tensions.” (Ehrlich, 2004, p10) A typical journalism film would be The Paper (1994); a tabloid editor successfully fights to publish a story that can free two African American youths wrongly accused of murder.
The definition of genre is a largely debated topic, as mentioned by Bordwell it can be argued that there is no set of necessary and sufficient conditions that can mark off genres. So to label something as a genre of film is not a defiant answer and it differs depending on the viewer. Stating a film as a journalism film is a difficult concept as Stam earlier suggested that the subject matter is the weakest criterion for generic grouping because it fails to take into account how the subject is treated. Many journalism films rely on subject matter but as Ehrlich suggested just as the nature of truth is at the heart of journalism it is also at the heart of journalism movies.
There is a broad spectrum of journalists in films that include the secondary representations mentioned by McNair and the overlapping of many genres in one film, such as, romantic comedies that involve characters in a newsroom. However, these types of films should not be considered as journalist films and should therefore be considered sub-genres.
In order for there to be a defined journalism genre the subject of journalism must be the main focus of the film. We see this in many films where the subject or narrative is focused on journalism ethics and the pursuit of journalists trying to get a story. These films share common characteristics amongst one another and cannot exist without the journalistic element. Therefore there is such a thing as a genre of ‘journalism films’.
Ace in the Hole (1951) Directed by Billy Wilder
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) Directed by Larry Charles
Bordwell, D. (1989) Making meaning: inference and rhetoric in the interpretation of cinema. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Broadcast News (1988) Directed by James L. Brooks
Citizen Kane (1941) Directed by Orson Welles
Django Unchained (2013) Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Ehrlich, M. C. (2004) Journalism in the movies. United States: University of Illinois Press
Gledhill, C. (1985) ‘Genre’, in Cook, P. and Bernink, M. (eds.) The Cinema Book. London: British Film Institute,
Grant, B. K. (2012) Film Genre Reader: v. 4. Edited by Barry Keith Grant. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press
Leone, S. (1966) The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
McNair, P. B. (2010) Journalists on Film: Heroes and Villains. United States: Edinburgh University Press
Shattered Glass (2004) Directed by Billy Ray
Stam, R. (2000) Film theory: an introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers
Sweet Smell of Success (1957) Directed by Alexander Mackendrick
The Devil Wears Prada (2006) Directed by David Frankel
The Front Page (1931) Directed by Lewis Milestone
The Killing Fields (1985) Directed by Roland Joffé
The Paper (1994) Directed by Ron Howard