The Lazy Trope of the Unethical Female Journalist

With Camille Preaker, Zoe Barnes, and Rory Gilmore, Hollywood’s depictions of women reporters have never been further from reality.

Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) conducts an "interview" in the HBO series 'Sharp Objects.'
Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) conducts an "interview" in the HBO series Sharp Objects. (HBO)

One of the most compelling characters in the recent Showtime documentary miniseries The Fourth Estate is the New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman. Haberman joined the newspaper in 2015 to help cover Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and since then, she explains, her workload has been all-encompassing. Haberman is rarely seen on camera without a phone in her hand or attached to her ear. “The biggest mistake I made was promising my children that they would get their mother back at the end of the campaign,” she says. In one memorable scene, she takes a break in the middle of recording a podcast to reassure her son that he can’t die in a nightmare.

The Fourth Estate makes for fascinating television despite the fact that the majority of the series simply captures people in meetings or people making calls or people commuting back and forth to work. As Stephen Marche wrote in 2014 for Esquire, the reality of journalists is that they’re “one of the less glamorous species of humanity,” and the most reliable trait of the truly gifted ones is that they’re perpetually on the phone—which is presumably why the entertainment industry has long preferred an alternate depiction of journalists, particularly when it comes to women. On television and in film, the fictional lady reporter tends to look less like Haberman and more like Camille Preaker, portrayed in the HBO miniseries Sharp Objects by Amy Adams.

In the show, Camille is initially sent to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to investigate a series of murders. But, as has previously been noted by Vulture and Elle, she takes a lackluster approach to reporting at best. She ignores multiple potential sources. She’s permanently inebriated. She breaks ethical boundaries and lies to her editor about them. She rarely documents any of her interviews. (In the picture above, observe that she’s apparently listening intently to someone and yet her notebook is closed.) Even worse: At the end of the most recent episode of Sharp Objects, “Falling,” Camille slept with someone who’s 18 years old, a murder suspect, and one of her primary sources.

For some reason, and despite all assurances from reporters to the contrary, Hollywood is stuck on the idea that female journalists are having sexual relationships with their bosses, their sources, or both. In 2015, Marin Cogan analyzed the phenomenon for New York magazine, lamenting the trend of depicting women reporters as “slutty ambition monsters.” Citing the characters of Zoe Barnes in House of Cards (who trades sex with Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood in exchange for stories) and Heather Holloway in the movie Thank You for Smoking (who seduces a lobbyist and then exposes everything he told her privately), Cogan decried the extent to which fictional portrayals of journalists influence the way people view them in reality. “Would it kill Hollywood to give us one grown-up Rory Gilmore?” she asked.

Be careful what you wish for. In 2016, Netflix released four follow-up episodes to the hit series Gilmore Girls, which allowed viewers to finally see Rory (Alexis Bledel) at work as a freelance journalist in her mid-30s. Only Rory, it turned out, was no exception to the Hollywood rule. She showed up on reporting trips with such low investment in her work that at one point she fell asleep during an interview. She arrived at a job interview disastrously unprepared and without a single story idea. And she, too, slept with a source, in this case someone dressed as a Wookiee at a Star Wars convention. (It’s unclear whether she followed the most basic reporting mandate of finding out what the Wookiee’s name was and how it was spelled.)

The trope of the unethical female reporter has persisted for several decades, throughout fiction, film, and television. Sarah Lonsdale writes in her 2016 book, The Journalist in British Fiction and Film, that the timing is ironic: As women have increasingly entered journalism and achieved high-level jobs in the industry, “their cultural representations have become increasingly negative and stereotyped.” You can trace the pattern back at least as far as 1981, when Sally Field played a Miami reporter in the Sydney Pollack movie Absence of Malice. Field’s character committed a number of ethical indiscretions, including having an affair with the subject of one of her stories, a liquor wholesaler played by Paul Newman, and publishing off-the-record information that caused a woman to die by suicide.

In one review, Roger Ebert noted that some audience members might struggle with the movie’s portrayal of journalism. But, he concluded, “I not only liked this movie despite its factual and ethical problems—I’m not even so sure they matter so much to most viewers.” And that was the problem in a nutshell: Fantastical stories about female journalists might be preposterous, but they were also entertaining.

The stereotype blossomed. In the original 1990 BBC miniseries House of Cards, Susannah Harker played an ambitious junior reporter having an affair with the politician Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson). Then came the 1999 Drew Barrymore rom-com Never Been Kissed, in which Barrymore played a cub reporter who goes undercover as a student and falls in love with an English teacher. The aforementioned Thank You for Smoking was released in 2005, starring Katie Holmes as the ruthlessly ambitious Holloway. And in 2008, Leslie Bibb played Iron Man’s Christine Everhart, a Vanity Fair reporter who sleeps with Tony Stark immediately after berating him for the fact that his company’s products kill innocent civilians. Later, in 2013, came Netflix’s House of Cards, and the memorable admission from Constance Zimmer’s Janine Skorsky that she’d “suck, screw, and jerk anything that moved just to get a story.”

House of Cards’ cavalier presentation of its female journalists as characters who’d trade their bodies for professional success prompted a more thorough interrogation of the trope. Writing for Slate, Alyssa Rosenberg called the series “grotesquely insulting to the women who do serious policy and political reporting in Washington every day.” In 2015, The Toast published “A Day in the Life of a Fictional Female Reporter.”

9:17 a.m.: Sleep with a source.
10:00 a.m.: Sleep with my boss.
10:58 a.m.: Find a powder-blue Oxford shirt that doesn’t quite button up over my breasts. Buy eight.
11:13 a.m.: Internet.
11:45 a.m.: Cultivate moxie, “stick-to-itive-ness.”
12:11 p.m.: Return to source’s house for more sex/to steal the incriminating book he keeps locked in his nightstand.

Jokes aside, fictional tropes can have real-world consequences. In her New York story, Cogan pointed out that the trend of portraying women reporters as poisonous and promiscuous was creating a toxic environment for real journalists, whose professional overtures to sources were frequently mistaken for personal ones. And even though shows such as Sharp Objects aren’t intended to offer a serious critique of journalists and their methods—in Camille’s case, it’s to show how thoroughly she sabotages herself at every turn—these portrayals matter, especially in an environment where Americans trust journalists and their methods less than ever.

In her 2016 book, Lonsdale writes that there’s something uniquely damaging about portraying women journalists as being willing to trade sex for stories. On the one hand, it undermines their profession further in the public eye. On the other, it further isolates them from their male counterparts, and underlines the suspicion that they’ve earned their positions illegitimately. And in light of the past year’s revelations about powerful men in journalism using their positions to inappropriately proposition women both at work and outside the office—something The Fourth Estate tackles in detail when a Times reporter is implicated—sexualized portrayals of women reporters seem even more insidious now than before.

This is why series like The Fourth Estate are so valuable. It’s worth noting at this point that documentary portraits of female reporters are still relatively rare, with Haberman, Joan Didion, and Haberman’s colleague Margalit Fox (one of the primary characters in the recent film Obit.) being the exceptions. But when documentarians do follow female reporters around, what they capture is the opposite of the charged Hollywood fantasy. Instead, it’s visibly tired, multitasking women working relentlessly because they know the stories they’re reporting are stories that need telling. The reality might not indulge the fantasies of primarily male writers and directors in quite the same way, but as The Fourth Estate shows, it can still make for enthralling television.