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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Author: Elizabeth Spadaccini

Calling it out: A Q&A with Sophie Gilbert on what’s wrong with on-screen portrayals of female journalists

Image of seated reporters, with a woman writing on a notebook in the foreground.It’s not a new trope—the on-screen female journalist uses whatever means necessary, including her body, to get the story, or she doesn’t record an interview (apparently, she can remember it all!), or she floats from source to source without any plan for a final story. While it might make for dramatic TV, it’s an inaccurate depiction of both the ethical code and process of journalism. 

Richard Jewell, a 2019 film directed by Clint Eastwood, is the most recent narrative to fall prey to this trope. In the movie, Olivia Wilde plays the late, real-life reporter Kathy Scruggs, showing her sleeping with a source in exchange for information. Both Eastwood and Wilde have defended the decision to include the plotline, while Kevin Riley, the editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution where Scruggs actually worked, stated there was no evidence for the exchange happening that way and expressed his disgust with the film for using a “sexual stereotype to attack the media.”

Sophie Gilbert, staff writer at The Atlantic, wrote about on-screen portrayals in 2018 in an article called “The Lazy Trope of the Unethical Female Journalist.” In a recent interview, she spoke to the Center for Journalism Ethics about Hollywood’s inaccurate take on female journalists and how real-life reporters can and should challenge these depictions.

Do you see a connection between the public’s low trust in the media and TV and movie portrayals such as these?

The low trust in media is a complicated thing that I’d argue is more directly related to things like the decimation of local media, the rise of opinion news platforms, and the 21st century shift to a media landscape where pageviews are a significant factor. That said, I don’t think portrayals of female journalists that show them trading sex for stories help. I’m more concerned about how they affect the ability of women in the field to actually do their job, and whether they put those women at risk because people unused to working with journalists have a false perception in their head of what that process involves.

When did you first notice the disconnect between female reporters in real life and the ones on TV?

That’s a good question. I think it was when “House of Cards” debuted on Netflix. Its portrayals of female journalists were just so ludicrous, and so egregious, even for such a consciously over-the-top show. There was a minor furor at the time, but not nearly at the level that there would be now, at a time where so many journalists are on social media. When I started researching the trope for the story I wrote in 2018, I realized how long it had been going on, and how absurdly prevalent it was.

 Why do you think ‘sleeping with sources’ is such a popular trope onscreen?

I think it’s because Hollywood naturally gravitates to the most sensational kinds of stories for movies and TV, for lots of obvious reasons. And the easiest way to make a story exciting is to add sex or action or violence. I also think it’s kind of a self-affirming thing—the more it happens, the more it’s going to happen, unless it’s called out, because writers and producers also tend to be drawn to the same storytelling elements over and over. 

How do we as journalists help change and challenge this narrative? How do we show people what journalism and its code of ethics really is? How do we present the image you evoke in your article of “visibly tired, multitasking women working relentlessly because they know the stories they’re reporting are stories that need telling”?

I think we call it out, every time we see it. We make a fuss, and we let writers, directors, and actors know that this is a toxic trope in storytelling that bears no similarity whatsoever to the reality of the job. One problem is that journalists shouldn’t be, and shouldn’t want to be, part of the story. Most people get into this job because they want to tell other people’s stories, not their own. And that creates a paradox where the reality of the job isn’t then communicated to people outside the industry. That said, whenever real stories about the process of journalism are told onscreen (I’m thinking of Spotlight or in book form “She Said”) they tend to be thrilling and propulsive, so I’m hopeful they can make a small difference.

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.


Cultivating coverage: the future of arts reporting

Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash. Mural of late Chicago photographer Vivian Maier by the Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra found in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago.


When newsroom budgets shrink, arts and culture reporters are often the first to go. Gone are the stories about the theater troupe or the big show coming to town, the books local people are writing or the latest movie to draw lines of fans. 

But what exactly do we stand to lose when our local and national news organizations neglect to cover the arts and culture of our day? And, in times of media downsizing, what’s the best way to mitigate those losses or ensure continued coverage? 

According to Tom Huang, assistant managing editor for Journalism Initiatives at the Dallas Morning News, “arts and culture are incredibly important for the health of the city, both for the economy and the city’s life. Those things need to flourish, and the ability to cover them and everything that they do, that’s important too, because they need that spotlight.”   

Indeed, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that in 2018, the arts contributed over $763 billion dollars to the U.S economy. Arts coverage is a part of this equation, driving attention to the arts and boosting the profits of art organizations often operating on tight budgets.

But it’s not all about the numbers. Cat Capellaro, the arts and culture editor at Isthmus Magazine, points to what she sees as the essential work of artists in society. “Artists are a part of our society, a really important part of it, because they have the ability to comment on something in a different way that might really open your eyes,” she says. “Art can make a difference in the public conscience.”

In the face of declining coverage, people like Huang are looking for ways to keep cultural reporting alive. He asks, “As arts journalism staffs are decreasing, how do we make sure that other kinds of journalists are still covering the most important aspects of the arts?”

In Dallas, he’s working on adapting journalism’s business model to the new online landscape. “As we become a digital first newsroom, it’s become really important for these stories to do well digitally,” he says. In May 2019, Huang held a workshop at the Poynter Institute titled “How to Cover Arts on Any Beat,” which promised to “give resource-strapped reporters and editors creative and sustainable approaches to incorporating arts coverage in business, government, education, features and breaking news stories.” Journalists from across the country attended, including Alejandra Salazar, an assistant producer at WNYC

“My arts muscle hadn’t been getting a lot of practice lately, I wanted to be able to market (the arts) for different pitches and stories and outlets, to find ways to incorporate arts coverage in other kinds of news,” she says.

The workshop allowed her to think in more detail about what arts and culture reporting really consists of, and how to take the heart of it and transfer it to different beats. “The goal is to try to highlight something in arts or culture that isn’t just a regurgitation of something,” Salazar says. “That’s often going to involve other things. I can’t imagine an effective arts piece that doesn’t include elements outside of talking about an artistic process.” 

For Samuel Freedman, author and journalism professor at Columbia University, initiatives like Huang’s are welcome but insufficient.

“If there is a culture angle to a crime or politics or sports story, I think it’s great to incorporate it, but that by itself doesn’t make up for the lack of more specialized coverage of the arts or the world of intellectual ideas,” he says.

For Freedman, it’s imperative that national and international news organizations first become stable from online revenue, to hold steady with the arts coverage they have currently and, eventually, to increase it in the future. 

Freedman is also a proponent of the boutique model of reporting. 

“The boutique model in journalism is to create websites that aren’t organized like a department store. We’re going to use the internet to project our coverage to the whole world who’s interested in this special area, whatever that area happens to be,” Freedman says, citing the investigative reporting site ProPublica and the sports site The Athletic as examples.  

Without a quick and obvious cure-all to the current cuts in journalism, it’s unlikely we’ll be returning to the days of fully staffed art reporting anytime soon. At the same time, cultural coverage isn’t ancient history and many news consumers still care about it. For Freedman, the future of arts reporting is guaranteed.

“Someone will come up with a sustainable model that will be about arts coverage…and it will be successful,” he says.


To continue the discussion about local journalism, attend the Center for Journalism Ethics conference: Journalism Ethics and the Crisis in Local News, on April 24th, 2020.

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

Localizing the immigration story: A Q & A with Borderless Magazine’s Nissa Rhee

New York Times immigration reporter Caitlin Dickerson (left) and Borderless magazine’s Nissa Rhee in conversation on September 25, 2019 at the Center for Journalism Ethics-hosted panel “On the Border and Beyond: Immigration and Journalism Ethics.”

Immigration reporting has gone from being an occasional story to receiving daily front page coverage. With that broader coverage comes the challenge of navigating a series of ethical issues, such as what gets covered, how stories should be framed and how to work with vulnerable sources. 

On Sept. 25, 2019, the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison held a panel titled “On the Border and Beyond: Ethics and Immigration Reporting.” Nissa Rhee, executive director of Borderless magazine (formerly 90 Days, 90 Voices), was one of the panel’s speakers. In a recent interview with the Center for Journalism Ethics, Rhee spoke about journalism ethics, the importance of covering immigrant stories and about Borderless magazine.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What led to the creation of 90 Days, 90 Voices?

90 Days, 90 Voices was started by myself and two other professional journalists here in Chicago a couple weeks after President Trump signed the Muslim travel ban, so February 2017. The vision at the time was to make it a short-term project that would fill in some of the gaps in the media coverage of the ban here, and namely elevate the stories of individual immigrants coming here and understand why are they coming here, what are their concerns, and push beyond a lot of the discussion about policy. At the time, the coverage here mostly was a lot of crying people in airports and we wanted to dig deeper and provide an outlet for people to speak openly about why they’re coming here and their concerns, and also be able to do it in a unique way — so offer people pseudonyms if necessary, offer people the option of using illustrations instead of photographs if necessary — all with the idea of protecting people’s safety in what was and currently is a dangerous time to speak out if you’re an immigrant. That was the origin of 90 Days, 90 Voices. The name came from the language in that executive order, where refugees were banned for 90 days, and it was envisioned to be a short-term project, but we got a huge response here in Chicago, so we kept going, kept doing bigger and bigger stories. We eventually got our 501(c)(3) status. We’ve outgrown this 90 Days name now, so that’s why we’re changing it to reflect that we’re here to stay.

During the panel, you mentioned a movement toward “solutions journalism”— can you speak a little more about what that is and how you’re seeing that movement?

I think this comes out of a feeling of despair that a lot people have as media consumers reading the news. If you turn on especially TV news, a lot of the stories are about the latest shooting, violence or wildfire. They’re all a lot of doom and gloom. For a long time, that’s been our focus as journalists, we have the saying “if it bleeds it leads.” We report about people being shot last night, we don’t report about all the other things that are happening in that neighborhood that are attempting to stop the shooting. 

It’s been a push to change the perspective of journalists, and a lot of the push came out of this Solutions Journalism Network, which is based in New York and does a lot of training and work to promote this school of thought. Beyond that, it’s also thinking as journalists — what is our role in the media landscape, in society? Are we just here to report all the bad things that happen, or are we here to provide a base for communication, dialogue and to highlight some of the things that are working in the society? 

I also mentioned the peace journalism movement out of Australia, which is kind of a sister movement, where there’s conversation about providing opportunities and space for dialogue. Journalism doesn’t just have to be antagonistic, it can also provide opportunities for hope and change.

During the panel, you talked about the attention immigration is now getting from the mainstream press. How has this newer, more heightened focus on covering immigration affected your organization and you?

There definitely is more focus on immigration now than in previous years in main papers. When we started in 2017 our main newspaper here, The Chicago Tribune, didn’t even have someone on the immigration beat. Now it’s constantly in the headlines. I think as an organization for us, it’s been a shift in thinking “what can we provide that other organizations can’t?” If places like the Chicago Tribune or New York Times are constantly updating people about the situation on the border or the situation on policy changes in DC, what can we as a local organization do and offer that’s different? For me, the answer is these personal stories, personal perspectives of people who are not at the border and really localizing the story.  There are a lot of detention centers in the Midwest, and this in many ways is a local story as much as it is a border story. There are immigrants, asylum seekers, refugees living throughout the Midwest. Really focusing on that is the way we’ve approached that.

You also talked about the importance of challenging the media’s narrative. Do you have any tips on how to do that?

I think the first step is realizing the media is powerful. It’s not just reporting the things that happen, it’s choosing to elevate certain things that happen, not everything is news. The only things that are news are what journalists choose to publish, so understanding that is important. And then, as journalists, being very mindful—what are we choosing to publish, what are we choosing to elevate as news, and is it the right choice? Really interrogate that in your newsroom, and wonder why are we reporting on the mayor’s announcements constantly. Why aren’t we reporting on what’s happening in this community. Why are we interviewing a lot of people who look like this or have this background and not people who have this (other) background? Really thinking and interrogating in your newsroom what gets covered, how can that be challenged, is important. 

I think as audience members, people who are not journalists, thinking and understanding that, while a lot of people get their news from journalists, there’s also a lot of other non-journalism news sources that community members make, whether it’s Facebook groups or newsletters, that are extremely valuable too, and a lot of people pay attention to that. Being an active citizen and either participating in those or reading those, I think is a great way to challenge some of that power too.

Now that your organization has decided to stick around, it’s not short-term anymore, what do you hope to see from it?

We expect and hope to keep growing as an organization, expanding our coverage beyond Chicago, further into the Midwest. Even though we plan to keep growing and growing, we know that we can’t do everything. What we do regularly and what we’re continuing to expand on is doing training with journalists, where we share with them our experiences, and our ethical guide to immigration reporting, and hope that they can bring this information – our perspective, our approaches – back to their own newsroom. 

The reality is we can’t cover every immigration story in Chicago, let alone the Midwest, so other people are going to do it. A lot of the people who are going to cover immigration aren’t going to be immigration beat reporters, they’re going to be general assignment or criminal justice reporters who are pulled onto an immigration story. I think it’s really important to keep training people and get a wide variety of people trained in how do we safely report on these issues, how do we look at this through a trauma-informed lens and really understand and protect our sources, not just for our reporters as an organization, but for all reporters. 

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.