Why HBO’s The Newsroom makes me nervous

It’s the start of another school year, and hundreds of thousands of students are starting at journalism school.

This, fresh after the conclusion of HBO’s The Newsroom.

I’ll admit to being a little caught up with life, and only watching the series now. I’m not alone when I say it’s a great show.

But there’s a nagging voice I keep hearing when folks rave about The Newsroom, and it’s saying to me: ‘it’s a show.’

And I hope – I truly hope – that there aren’t people signing up for journalism school, intending to get a job in Aaron Sorkin’s newsroom.

Because while it’s high drama, fast-paced and an adrenaline rush, which is true to life, it isn’t reality.

For starters, we swear a whole lot more.

There are many other ways The Newsroom is not like an actual newsroom (and here is a fantastic list of them), and I worry the effect that has on students who are looking for a career like that.

In the years before I started journalism school, Ron Howard produced the movie The Paper, which centred around the  dramatic adrenaline rush that is the day in the life of a New York newspaper’ s metro editor. Oh, and to boot his wife is about to deliver their first child.

As he tracks down a news story, Henry Hackett juggles personal life, a job opportunity and works his sources for the scoop.

My colleagues at the student newspaper and I were hooked: this was the life for us.

Looking back, it was quite really – I’ve only stopped the presses once, and it wasn’t nearly as dramatic and fantastic a scene as when Glenn Close did it (and I’ve never seen anyone shoot a pistol into a stack of papers.)

The Paper, much like The Newsroom, glorifies the trade too much – it doesn’t tell the full story. It’s the sexy side of news – much as the news we see on TV, the finished product, is so much sexier than the process it takes to get there.

Peter Henderson, one of our smart summer interns, pointed out one flaw. “It’s so easy on the show,” he said. “Wil says ‘get me someone from Oaklahoma and poof! They have someone. Real chase producing can take hours.”

Henderson gets it. Not everyone does.

Years ago, as I was a prospective student shopping around for journalism schools, checking out programs at various institutions, I remember one information session at Ryerson University.

The kind gentleman at the front of the room asked how many of us wanted to be on television.

Almost every hand in the room went up.

How many of you want to be journalists? he asked.

I smiled. There was a quiet murmuring in the room as he explained that Ryerson teaches students how to be journalists, not just ‘how to make TV.’

In my first year at Carleton University, one of the students in my class announced at Christmas break that she was dropping out of the program.

“It’s not for me,” she said. “I don’t like calling people, I don’t like talking to people. I just like writing stories.”

I paused.

“What you want to be is a fiction writer,” I said.

She laughed, and agreed. There’s nothing wrong with this, and I’m glad she was able to be honest with herself about her goals. (Many aren’t this honest with themselves until it’s too late).

I worry that The Newsroom so distorts the reality of journalism there will be more like her entering journalism schools, filled with illusions about the job – the sizzle, without the steak.

Here’s what I hope prospective j-school students keep in mind when they watch the show. Call this a quick reality check if you will:

  • Though extremely rewarding and exciting, journalism is tough. There will be days when you chase a story only to come up empty
  • You will, at some point, be asked to attend a funeral. Or talk to someone who has just lost their loved one. Or tell  someone they have just lost their loved one.
  • Things will rarely be wrapped up in a tidy, one-hour segment
  • Chase producing is hard. I once called every person named ‘Smith’ (all 78 of them) in a small town looking for a connection to a plane crash victim. I didn’t find anyone.
  • Rarely do interns move to associate producer roles in major network news shows.
  • Not all stories are borne of mysterious phone calls from anonymous sources.
  • You will work hard, you will learn every single day. Some days you will win, other days you will lose.
  • If you are one of the good ones, and want it, you will make it – but there will be sacrifices.
  • Holding public figures and institutions to account is not a responsibility to be taken lightly.
  • You must be proud of your own work, and successes – it is unlikely you’ll get a Golden Globe, an Emmy, or the rare pat on the back.

Did I mention that journalism is hard? But of course this is what makes getting the story so very sweet.

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One thought on “Why HBO’s The Newsroom makes me nervous

  1. In all honesty shows like this will attract people into journalism, just like shows like CSI made people want to be come forensic experts. Not all will last and make it into full fledged professionals, but one has to think that perhaps these shows might attract people that maybe never considered going into this type of career. There’s no question that more often than not these shows over glorify these jobs, but who would watch shows like this is they didn’t 🙂

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