All the President’s Men (1976).
In the blissful few hours my son slept on the way back to the Middle East I was able to take in what Saudi Arabian airlines consider an ‘American Classic’ - All the President’s Men (1976). Based on the Washington Post’s reporting into the Watergate scandal of just four years before. It stars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman playing the roles of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two young Post reporters that brought the story to light. It’s a very pacey thriller and a reminder that with a great script and a smart director you can tell the most gripping of stories with only a handful of actors and sets. No fancy stuff. Just a great story well told.
It is also a refreshing reminder of what real investigative journalism should be like. The excitement of a newsroom working towards deadlines. Digging under the surface, chasing leads, sorting through data, risking reputation, and indeed life, to get to the truth of the matter. Not a Buzzfeed retweet or a Breitbart blog post anywhere in sight. Just a good old fashioned President trying to undermine democracy… Maybe some things don’t change after all.
A newsroom activity.
A new topic – very little information given to the students about the ‘narrative’ to be uncovered. Create journalistic teams of three or so– an editor and a few reporters. A deadline on the board counting down. A laptop each. Littered around the school could be facts, videos (ipads/laptops), photographs and transcripts of interviews with key individuals. The reporters go off with a notebook, looking to uncover the story, to make inferences and write down quotes from the sources (in the early stages the editor would need to be busy setting out the layout etc). The editor collates the information from the journalists, directs them on where to go next, and writes up the article. You could throw in some slightly off topic material to keep them working towards the truth and having to assess the relevance of the sources.
What would success look like?
A criteria provides them with guidance on style and factual content (are statements supported?). Once the deadline is reached pupils could peer assess each other’s articles based on this criteria. Call it a ‘Fake News’ criteria – get them to really assess the reliability of their information and generate a score. The activity would then lead to a plenary looking at the nature of evidence and how views can be supported reliably or otherwise.
Laptops, countdown timer on the main screen, ipads, various printed sources – photographs, receipt slips, account books (numeracy), transcripts of interviews – basically any sort of primary source you think an investigative journalist might be able to use to uncover a story. You would also need an exemplar answer that could be used in the peer assess phase in case some groups fail to publish on time.
How could it be developed?
It could lead to a discussion of some of the key journalistic terms in the case. What is a whistle blower? What is an anonymous source? Why would they wish to remain anonymous? Could the source have a motive of their own? Money? Revenge? Ambition? A sense of duty? Why would a journalist protect their source?
In the film the White House directly attacks the reputation of the Washington Post, why would they do this? Any parallels with today(!)?
Could the facts change mid-reporting? Have multiple publication deadlines, this would give them a chance to perfect their teamwork and writing/research skills but also allow you to change some of the facts – perhaps a key witness suddenly changes their story. Why? Is someone trying to hide something? Are sources being turned or warned away?