The best books about journalists as heroes

Who am I?

I’ve worked in and around journalism long enough to know that not all journalists are heroes. Few even aspire to be. But there is something quietly heroic about the daily task of holding the powerful to account, even in democracies where the risk of imprisonment or assassination is less than in more authoritarian states. Here is my selection of books to remind all of us about some of these more heroic aspects of the journalism trade. I hope you find reading them enjoyable and maybe even inspiring.

I wrote...

Journalism: Principles and Practice

By Tony Harcup,

Book cover of Journalism: Principles and Practice

What is my book about?

I was inspired to write this after moving from doing journalism to teaching it, and being disappointed by most of the books on offer. Many academic tomes were full of gobbledebollocks and seemed to look down on mere hacks, while journalists’ own efforts tended towards the unreflective. I wanted to fill the gap by producing a readable book about what journalism is for as well as how to do it. Stories from interviews with journalists, combined with my own experiences and discussion of the scholarly literature, make the book what it is - one that takes entertainment as seriously as ethics.

The books I picked & why

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All the President's Men

By Carl Bernstein, Bob Woodward,

Book cover of All the President's Men

Why this book?

This might be an obvious choice, but sometimes the obvious is obvious for good reason. Written in the 1970s, it remains the template for investigative journalism to this day. It is a first-hand account of how two heroic young reporters investigated what was initially dismissed as a humdrum burglary at a building in Washington DC. The rest, as they say, is history, and the name of the building – Watergate – has become journalistic legend. Woodward and Bernstein had no special superhero powers. It was their meticulous search for sources, evidence, and verification of dirty tricks – all detailed in this gripping tale – that brought down US president Richard Nixon. Their book is the polar opposite of the ‘fake news’ slogan adopted by one more recent resident of the White House.

The Great Reporters

By David Randall,

Book cover of The Great Reporters

Why this book?

This hugely enjoyable book introduced me to the work of Nellie Bly, and for that alone I will forever be in debt to David Randall. Nellie Bly is just one of 13 great reporters discussed – others include William Howard Russell and James Cameron – but it was her exploits that most captured my imagination. She specialised in going undercover to expose wrongdoing, and her targets included those in positions of power responsible for everything from unsafe factory conditions to the inhumane asylums in which women were locked up for suspected insanity. Her stories were written in straightforward language but were genuinely sensational, raising awareness and helping to change social conditions for the better. As Randall concludes: "Nellie Bly was the very antithesis of cynicism."

Challenging the News: The Journalism of Alternative and Community Media

By Susan Forde,

Book cover of Challenging the News: The Journalism of Alternative and Community Media

Why this book?

Journalism takes many forms, and this readable study by a journalist-turned-academic examines some of the more alternative styles and outlets that operate beyond the corporate mainstream media industries. Alternative they may be, but the projects studied by Forde produce proper journalism rather than the uninformed commentary or aggressive shouting adopted by some who like to style themselves as ‘alternative media.’ None of the journalists she interviews would see themselves as heroes but, by defying the odds to produce independent reporting in the cause of social justice around the world, they engage in countless small acts of heroism every day. 


By Val McDermid,

Book cover of 1979

Why this book?

Thriller writer and contemporary ‘queen of crime’ Val McDermid draws deeply on her own years as a tabloid journalist to bring fictional reporter Allie Burns to life during the winter of discontent. This unputdownable tale of a newspaper investigation into matters of life, death, and corruption is so evocative of a 1970s Glasgow newsroom that I could practically smell the fags and taste the whisky. More Allie Burns stories are promised, and I for one can’t wait.

The Journalist in British Fiction and Film: Guarding the Guardians from 1900 to the Present

By Sarah Lonsdale,

Book cover of The Journalist in British Fiction and Film: Guarding the Guardians from 1900 to the Present

Why this book?

If fictional journalists are your thing, then this book will almost certainly introduce you to some you’ve never heard of as well as those you (really should) have. Lonsdale insightfully identifies and dissects themes that crop up time after time in creative writing about journalists, from swashbuckling rogues to unethical scumbags. In the process, she has plenty to say about the craft of journalism itself and its enduring value to society. There is humour too, as when she quotes the immortal line of Stella Gibbons (author of Cold Comfort Farm): "The life of the journalist is poor, nasty, brutish and short. So is his style." Lovely.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in journalists, investigative journalism, and journalism?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about journalists, investigative journalism, and journalism.

Journalists Explore 100 books about journalists
Investigative Journalism Explore 15 books about investigative journalism
Journalism Explore 26 books about journalism

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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