Journalists serve an important role in society, empowering people to make informed decisions about their lives through knowledge.
Unlike many occupations, journalism acts more as a public service or utility, defined by its purpose and principles, rather than it’s day-to-day operations.
The problem with occupations defined by concepts and qualities rather than tangible goals or abilities is that they are particularly susceptible to stereotypes in popular culture.
Take, for instance, Star Trek’s depictions of journalists, many of which have an overarching negative archetype.
There’s a long list of journalists, canon and non-canon, throughout Star Trek’s more than 50-year history. Unfortunately, they are portrayed much the same way throughout the franchise, with little change to speak of in those five decades of experience.
Going through the list of journalist characters, some of the most obvious qualities that can be attributed to all or most of them are:
Two of the best examples of this are from Jake Sisko in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Gannet Brooks in Star Trek: Enterprise.
Jake (Cirroc Lofton), the ambitious son of Captain Benjamin Sisko aspires to be a writer; a departure from his father’s lengthy Starfleet career and the aspirations of his Ferengi friend Nog to become the first of his species in Starfleet Academy.
On a trip to Ferengiar with Nog in DS9 Episode “Valiant,” Jake tells Nog he isn’t going as a reporter, a claim that turns out not to be entirely true as Jake is working for the Federation News Service.
The deception on Jake’s part causes tension between him and Nog, separating them on key issues further into the episode and setting Jake up to be untrustworthy as events unfold.
Through seven seasons of DS9, we rarely see a positive depiction of Jake in his role as journalist.
In the Season 5 episode “Nor the Battle to the Strong,” Jake finally starts to exhibit some of the noble qualities expected of journalists and war-time reporters. Unfortunately, this one-hit episode does little to dispel the overarching stereotype cast on Jake and other journalists portrayed throughout the franchise and in later DS9 episodes.
In the Enterprise episode “Demons,” Gannet Brooks (Johanna Watts), a reporter and ex-girlfriend of Ensign Travis Mayweather, is portrayed as cruel, deceitful and untrustworthy when she fabricates a story assignment and uses Travis’ feelings for her to spy on the Enterprise crew.
This negative portrayal continues to be perpetuated in Star Trek. Most recently, in Star Trek: Picard.
In the premiere episode of Picard, a nameless journalist (played by Merrin Dungey, the character is listed as “Richter” in the episode credits) is preparing to interview one of the most famous admirals in Starfleet. She is told by Zhaban, one of Picard’s Romulan housekeepers, that she cannot ask Picard about his departure from Starfleet.
This tactic of controlling the questions asked rather than the answers given is one journalists face in real life, especially journalists who interview political candidates.
Here’s part of the dialogue, courtesy of IMDB:
Interviewer: And then the unimaginable happened. Can you tell us about that?[Picard sighs]
Jean-Luc Picard: I thought we were here to talk about the supernova.
Interviewer: A group of rogue synthetics dropped the planetary defense shields and hacked Mars’ own defense net.
Jean-Luc Picard: Yes.
Interviewer: Wiping out the rescue armada and completely destroying the Utopia Planitia Shipyard. The explosions ignited the flammable vapors in the stratosphere. Mars remains on fire to this day. 92,143 lives were lost, which led to a ban on synthetics.
Jean-Luc Picard: Yes. We still don’t know why the synthetics went rogue and did what they did that day, but I believe the subsequent decision to ban synthetic lifeforms was a mistake.
Interviewer: Lieutenant Commander Data, operations officer on the Enterprise, was synthetic. Did you ever lose faith in him?
Jean-Luc Picard: Never.
Interviewer: What was it that you lost faith in, Admiral? You’ve never spoken about your departure from Starfleet. Didn’t you, in fact, resign your commission in protest? Tell us, Admiral. Why did you really quit Starfleet?
Jean-Luc Picard: Because it was no longer Starfleet.
Interviewer: I’m sorry?
Jean-Luc Picard: Because it was no longer Starfleet! We withdrew. The galaxy was mourning, burying its dead, and Starfleet had slunk from its duties. The decision to call off the rescue and to abandon those people we had sworn to save was not just dishonorable. It was downright criminal! And I was not prepared to stand by and be a spectator. And you, my dear, you have no idea what Dunkirk is, right? You’re a stranger to history. You’re a stranger to war. You just wave your hand and[scoffs]
Jean-Luc Picard: it all goes away. Well, it’s not so easy for those who died. And it was not so easy for those who were left behind. We’re done here.[Picard stands up and walks away]
Now, let me explain why this is problematic.
When you watched the scene, what emotions did you have for the journalist and what emotions did you have for Picard? What about his reaction?
The qualities that are often noted as respectable and expected of a journalist – Doggedness, impartiality, accountability – are not present in these representations and are not how viewers see these scenes.
Instead of seeing these qualities, she is seen as antagonistic to Picard. Rather than being shown as relentlessly pursuing the truth, holding Picard accountable for his actions during the Romulan evacuation efforts and steadfastly asking the question everyone wanted answers to, the former Starfleet Admiral Picard is shown as the victim of her cruel line of questioning, despite his unpreparedness for the interview, reactionary behavior and unbecoming departure.
Picard’s behavior in this scene also raises the discussion of white male privilege and the issue journalists of color, especially women, face. Would viewers still see the journalist as the antagonist in this scene if it were a white man asking tough questions of a Black woman? Or would they see her as evasive and obstinate?
Both are questions to be explored more and an example of why archetypes, such as the ones applied to journalists in Star Trek, are not entertaining, but ignorant.
Instead of learning about a character’s unique attributes, we are forced to make judgements based on flawed archetypes for the sake of getting the story moving faster rather than building slowly an individual with their own personality, faults and strengths.
If Star Trek is going to continue to explore diversity and individuality among its characters and species, it will need to make a long-overdue decision to abandon archetypes and stereotypes of journalists, engineers and other occupations in favor of building on the individuals doing those jobs to accurately represent people in their occupations.