Saturday, August 11, 2012

Why No One Killed Jessica is not a journalism movie

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m a journalist always looking for a good journalism movie. Films overwhelmingly have the tendency to portray journalists either crusaders or scumbags; neither is often very accurate. When I mentioned my quest for a solid Bollywood journalism movie, several people recommended No One Killed Jessica to me.

I put it off and put it off, but recently I finally did sit down and watch the film.

The facts are this: It’s a good film. It’s not a good journalism film.

In case you don’t know, No One Killed Jessica is based on the real-life murder of Jessica Lall: A minister’s fatally son shoots Jessica in a club because she won’t give him a drink. But when the police investigate, the minister’s goons buy off and intimidate everyone away from testifying. Jessica’s sister, Sabrina (Vidya Balan), leads the uphill fight for justice. The court eventually finds the man not guilty and lets him free. But journalist Meera Gaity (Rani Mukherjee), a former war correspondent, refuses to let it go and publicizes the story, eventually helping to work up outrage that reopens the case and results in a guilty verdict.

Why is this a good film? Because it’s a moving story of the tragedy of the murder, a sister’s refusal to give up seeking justice, the painful reality of corrupt Indian politics and legal system, a nation’s outcry over the injustice of it all. And of course there are great performances from Rani and Vidya.

Why is it not a good journalism film? There’s little or — dare I say — no actual journalism in the film about the murders.

No one journalist investigates the murders. All of the damning evidence that later stirs up public fury is effectively dropped in Meera’s lap. She merely goes on television to present it — that’s not journalism. The most any of the other journalists do is insist — and fail in their insistence — that this is a story. Yes, that’s a part of journalism. But to think that journalism ends there — in deciding what is a worthwhile story — is a great, great failure.

Having the guts to talk about a story is important.
But looking pretty for a camera to present evidence
you didn't work for isn't journalism.

Another great problem in treating this film as a picture of journalism comes in the fact that this film definitely steps outside what we consider journalism’s role and bounds. In the United States, potential jurors are screened for their knowledge of a case based on media coverage and then later ordered to avoid media coverage of the case, lest they be influenced or biased by the media’s coverage or encounter evidence that isn’t presented in trial.

The reason? There is a significant danger in conducting trials in the court of public opinion rather than a court of law. Certainly with a corrupt law enforcement system, it’s tempting, but it’s also dangerous. Ask anyone who has been wrongfully accused or, worse, convicted due to media coverage.

And the film entirely ignores this problem. The murderer is tried and convicted in the mind of Meera — and then the minds of the people who watch her news shows — before the evidence truly comes out. That is not justice.

In the film, this, despite being highly problematic, is allowed to work because the man is guilty. It works because we know from the case in real life that the man was guilty.

But in pure journalism terms, I have a significant problem with it.

It is not a journalist’s job to put a man on trial, to prove that he is guilty or innocent. It is a journalist’s job to present the public with the unvarnished facts.

Yes, outrage often spawns reform. But it isn’t a journalist’s job to spawn outrage, either. It’s a person’s right, the public’s right, to decide whether something is outrage-worthy. Using the media to start things like that is a very slippery slope.


  1. Interesting to read this from an actual journalist - but you're right about the movie, that it's good anyhow. However, I didn't find it as good as the Indian critics did.

    1. I actually have to agree on that too... I wasn't OMG WOWED like the critics were, even though I did like it a lot.