Heroes and Scoundrels:
The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture

Heroes and Scoundrels

By Matthew C. Ehrlich
Professor of journalism at the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Joe Saltzman
Professor of journalism and communication
at the University of Southern California

Publication date: April 2015. University of Illinois Press

Chapter Three

In this chapter we look at how popular culture portrays journalists as being different from everyone else and how it treats differences among journalists themselves. Rather than being depicted as above-it-all elitists, journalists more often deviate from society’s norms altogether. Those who fall outside the white-male-heterosexual realm lead especially problematic personal and professional lives. Stories by female, minority, and gay or lesbian authors provide a unique take on issues of difference that many journalists confront.
Ehrlich-Saltzman, Heroes and Scoundrels: The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture – page 59. ©University of Illinois Press, 2015

For better or worse, assimilation for most journalists in popular culture is stubbornly elusive, regardless of their gender, race, or sexual orientation. Part of the mythic appeal of those journalists is how different they are from everyone else. They are the heroes who are “unwavering and unapologetic” in exposing wrongdoing, and they are the sardonic outsiders who ruthlessly mock society’s pieties and pretensions. However, just as the hero can succumb to arrogance (or to being a “tight-ass”), the outsider can succumb to cynicism or to drink or to permanent separation from the rest of humanity. Popular culture repeatedly dramatizes such fates in depicting journalists as a species apart.

The struggle of being different is especially acute for journalists who are not male, white, or straight, whether it is in popular culture or in reality. Pop cul­ture’s portrayals have improved in some respects: women today are depicted as more than “sob sisters” wanting only marriage, journalists of color appear more often and are not merely tokens, and LGBT journalists are not just “sis­sies” or “bitchy.” Journalism itself also has improved. Women “now appear well-established in a profession” that not long ago “was a male enclave,” and they have played “a significant role in redefining news to incorporate issues associated with the quotidian concerns of women as a whole.”  Journalists (both of color and white) have managed in many cases “to surmount the ignorance, fear, and rampant clichés that uniquely sabotage reporting about race relations and cultural difference,” and they have been able to “transform fear and ignorance into curiosity; turn cliché-laden frames into opportunities for surprise and discovery.” Over time, “mainstream newspapers, maga­zines, and broadcast news entities in the United States have moved from a position of condemnation and scorn to one of familiarity and even support for gay people.” Yet just as the old stereotypes still appear with some regularity in popular culture’s depictions of journalists, the press still has a long way to go.
Ehrlich-Saltzman, Heroes and Scoundrels: The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture – pages 78-79. ©University of Illinois Press, 2015

For now, popular culture continues to dramatize the struggles within jour­nalism. That is particularly true of those stories that are produced outside the mainstream and that present poignant insight into the lives of nonwhite, non-male, and nonheterosexual journalists. At their best, those stories—like the best of journalism—“provoke thought, challenge stereotypes, and promote a greater understanding.” Even when it is not at its best, popular culture vividly demonstrates the glories that can come with being different, as well as the sometimes terrible costs.
Ehrlich-Saltzman, Heroes and Scoundrels: The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture – page 80. ©University of Illinois Press, 2015


Other Resources:

Amanda Rossie, “Looking to the Margins: The ‘Outsider Within’ Journalistic Fiction,” IJPC Journal 1 (2009): 105–37, http://ijpc.uscannenberg.org/journal/index.php/ijpcjournal/article/view/11/13.

Beauty, Brains and Bylines: Comparing the Female Journalist in the fiction of Sherryl Woods and Sarah Shankman, by Amanda Marie Rossie, graduate student, Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, University of Southern California, May, 2009

Radhika Parameswaran, “Moral Dilemmas of an Immoral Nation: Gender, Sexuality, and Journalism in Page 3,” IJPC Journal 1 (2009): 71–72, http://ijpc.uscannenberg.org/journal/index.php/ijpcjournal/article/view/10/12.

"Sob Sisters: The Image of the Female Journalist in Popular Culture," http://ijpc.org/page/sobsmaster.htm

"The Image of the Gay Journalist in Popular Culture," http://ijpc.org/page/image_of_the_gay_journalist_web_page.htm

The Female Journalist in Bollywood: Middle-Class Career Woman or Problematic National Heroine? by Sukhmani Khorana, Metro Magazine 171, pp. 102 to 106. 2012

Donna Born's "The Image of the Woman Journalist in American Popular Fiction, 1890 to the Present," a Paper Presented to the Committee of the Association for Education in Journalism, Annual Convention, Michigan State University, East Lansing, August, 1981, pp. 1-45. Also, "The Woman Journalist of the 1920s and 1930s in Fiction and in Autobiography," presented to the Qualitative Studies Division, Association for Education in Journalism Annual Convention, Ohio, July 1982, pp. 1-24. Born was an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism at Central Michigan University.

Crime, Romance and Sex: Washington Women Journalists in Recent Popular Fiction by Stacy L. Spaulding, assistant professor of journalism, Columbia Union College and Maurine H. Beasley, Professor of Journalism, Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Media Report to Women 32, No. 4 (2004), pp. 6-12.


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