Journalists Walk A Fine Line When They Act
The cameo appearances of a few big-name TV news personalities in Netflix’s House of Cards has rekindled the question of whether journalists breach the ethics of the business by doing acting gigs on the side.
In the 13-episode series, released all at once on the streaming service earlier this month, national newspeople including ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and CNN’s Candy Crowley, Soledad O'Brien and John King play themselves, bringing a touch of reality to the Washington-based political drama.
In one episode, Stephanopoulos grills a make-believe politico on his real-life ABC program, This Week. Soledad O'Brien conducts a scripted interview on the CNN set.
Local TV reporters moonlight as well. The practice seems especially popular among Chicago news personalities, who over the years have shown up on TV series including Boss, The West Wing and ER and in movies like The Fugitive and Backdraft.
Mike Clark, an anchor at Hearst Television’s WTAE Pittsburgh, appeared in the Denzel Washington film Unstoppable.
Steve Dickstein, a Philadelphia-area attorney who represents TV talent, says nearly all contracts include a clause saying on-air news talents work exclusively for their stations, unless they are granted permission to do otherwise.
Representatives of ABC, NBC, Hearst and Tribune stations all say they weigh acting offers on a case-by-case basis.
ABC-owned KABC Los Angeles allows anchors and reporters to appear only on ABC shows when requested, says News Director Cheryl Fair.
They also are allowed “occasionally in movies, but only if we get to see the scripts in advance and make sure that what they are being asked to say or do is appropriate for their job and the television station,” she says.
Also in Los Angles, NBC-owned KNBC has reduced the film appearances of its on-air talent over time, according to a station spokeswoman. It’s been about 10 years since a KNBC newsperson last did an acting job. Today, staff’s extra curricular activities focus instead on “strictly philanthropic appearances,” which have increased in the last year, she says.
Purists say broadcast journalists don’t belong on anything but genuine news programming.
“It's one thing if the movie is based on real life, but when the film is fiction, the introduction of ‘real’ reporters designed to make the story seem more real could actually make the journalists seem less so,” says NewsLab’s Deborah Potter.
Dickstein also believes the practice has taken a toll on the industry’s credibility.
“I think the change in our cultural standards and expectations — which has likely evolved over decades — has diminished the stature of the journalist,” he says.
But giving anchors and reporters parts in movies and television shows “has been going on forever,” Potter says — and not everyone thinks the practice is all bad. And opposing the practice on ethical grounds only goes so far when a practice is already as longstanding and fairly widely accepted as this one is. As Dickstein says, “There ain’t no going back.”
He adds: “If a client were to be invited to appear on a network show or movie with the assignment of reciting lines, I’d encourage him or her to do it. It’s silly to be sanctimonious in a brothel.”
Barbara Cochran, the longtime broadcast journalist and University of Missouri journalism professor, says protecting a news operation’s image is the No. 1 priority in deciding whether movie or TV show appearances are OK.
Cochran experienced that herself when she headed NPR’s news operation in the early 1980’s. At that time, a filmmaker asked whether a movie character – a journalist involved with South American rebels – could carry an NPR-branded bag onscreen.
Cochran said no.
“I was not happy about it at all,” she says. “I didn’t want people to thank that it would be OK for an NPR reporter to take an obvious side in a guerilla war.”
But Cochran says she does think it’s OK for newspeople to break out into movies and TV every so often, especially since most of the roles they are offered require them to play themselves “and most people are pretty good at that.”
“As long as it’s not a role that in anyway compromises your credibility as a journalist,” she says. “If it’s somebody doing what they would do in their workday life, it’s not an ethical problem.”
Plus, she says, “It can be quite a lot of fun.”