Lights go out in The Newsroom


Samantha Sobolewski in the Ryersonian newsroom. (Rebecka Calderwood / Ryersonian Staff)

I don’t remember much about April 1, 2012, but thanks to a timestamp and a YouTube video, I remember how I felt.

News seems to travel at the speed of light around the Ryerson school of journalism, especially when it involves the magic combination of journalism and TV shows.

When HBO released the first trailer for The Newsroom, my first-year journalism class treated it like a breaking story on the news wires.

“Have you seen the trailer?”

“Check this show out.”

“You need to see this.”

At the time, I didn’t know the first thing about putting on a newscast. I’d barely wrapped my head around Canadian Press style (the official writing guidelines for articles). For all I knew, iNews was just the latest innovation of Apple technology (it’s actually software used in broadcast journalism).

But when I saw that first two-minute trailer, full of dramatic sweeping gestures, flashy cutaways and proclamations to deliver the truth like no newsroom had before, I suddenly understood. For the first time in my career, I knew the way I wanted to do the news. It left me with goosebumps. I craved more.

Anchor Will McAvoy, the role actor Jeff Daniels won an Emmy for in 2013, is a fast-talking, sharp-tongued journalistic messiah. The Atlantic Cable News team’s ambition to deliver stories that truly matter is infectious and inspiring, which is part of the reason why I continued to tune in each week and let it shape the way I learned how to deliver the news.
But while I devotedly sat through each episode — including the painfully long opening credits, my media counterparts were skeptical of its delivery.

“When The Newsroom isn’t obvious and self-congratulatory, it’s manipulative and shriek,” wrote Maureen Ryan from Huffington Post.

“At its worst, the show chokes on its own sanctimony,” wrote Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times.

The ratings weren’t much better. According to Nielsen, season one of The Newsroom averaged a 0.9 rating with 1.9 million viewers. Season 2’s average fell to a disappointing 1.79 million viewers. In comparison, Game of Thrones drew in 2.5 million viewers in its first season and has progressively grown to become HBO’s second-highest rated series, next to The Sopranos.

Despite the poor reviews telling me to change the channel, I was deaf to their words. I continued to tune in, unintentionally allowing the show to shape the way I ingested the news and absorbed ideas from my classes.
When the show’s financial reporter Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) tries to force a guest to repeat off-the-record remarks on air, I learned the implications, including potential job loss, that breaching ethical standards can cause. The three stickiest words in journalism are “off the record,” and once they come into play, there isn’t much wiggle room at all.

And when the show’s news team decides to hold off on reporting Osama bin Laden’s death until the president confirms it, I realized that waiting for official confirmation is often a smarter decision than trying to be the first news team to report something. Speculative reporting has no place in a serious newsroom, and an iron-clad confirmation is of utmost importance.

And the best part? All these lessons were learned from the comfort of my couch, sparing me from learning them the hard way: by making the mistakes on my own. By the time I began my second year, I already knew what the wires looked like — and how critical a flashing yellow update can turn out to be, no matter how insignificant you first thought. Executive producers and lineup editors had become familiar job descriptions before I actually stepped into them myself.
My education, supplemented by my Newsroom addiction, continued throughout the next two years. My ethics and law classbecame whispered discussions about the failed ethical decisions of the fictional character Jerry Dantana (Hamish Linklater) and his season-long story arch of forging information from a source.

The fabricated News Night story that the U.S. army had participated in chemical warfare tied hand-in-hand with the hypothetical situations outlined in various discussions about proper quotes. I learned the dangers of tampering with quotes and the fine line that rests between. It hammered home the value of a newsroom’s credibility and the stakes on the line if a reporter jeopardizes that reputation.
If you let the glamour of a heavy hitting investigative piece outweigh the fact-checking procedures to follow, your piece and your byline is worthless. And it was all learned safely.

Throughout the 19-episode series so far, I was able to see the p ossible consequences of the mistakes made in the show, with no real-life repercussions. I also saw the euphoria that delivering the news can bring, when it’s done exactly the way you set out to do it. It’s been an experience well worth the near-$240 yearly HBO subscription.

Was my original captivation with the series simply based on a lack of real newsroom experience? Probably. Had I been jaded by a real newsroom, maybe I wouldn’t have fallen so hard for The Newsroom — as some critics and reporters have staunchly avoided doing. My growing experience in newsrooms hasn’t jaded me — at least not yet. In fact, through the show’s two seasons and my own experiences in journalism school, I’ll never forget the overarching lesson I’ve learned: the difference between what can happen in a dreamed-up television newsroom and what I can aspire to do in a real one every single day.

As the series begins its third and final season on Sunday, I’ll be tuning in to try and learn any lessons The Newsroom can offer me. I’ll be tuning in to get my final case of hair-raising goosebumps and more importantly, to remind myself why I chose a journalism degree in the first place.

After all, it will be my last chance before the lights go out in The Newsroom for the final time — and before mine are set to shine even brighter as I become a journalism school graduate.

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