BREAKING THE NEWS (Tribeca 2023) – Review by Valerie Kalfrin

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Early in the documentary Breaking the News, newsroom head Emily Ramshaw speaks over Zoom with editor-at-large Errin Haines, whose work broke the first national story about the police shooting of Kentucky EMT Breonna Taylor in her home.

Ramshaw, who is White, admits she hadn’t grasped the significance of Taylor’s shooting until Haines, who is Black, pushed to cover it, noting that police shoot Black women, too. She thanks Haines for her tenacity and tells her she was right.

Haines appreciates the comments. “I wanted her story told, and I was glad I was able to tell it,” she says.

Such behind-the-scenes exchanges make Breaking the News a fascinating watch. The documentary, which debuted at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival, covers three years in the life of The 19th*, an independent, nonprofit newsroom reporting on gender, politics, and policy, showing its growing pains from an online startup of about five employees during the COVID-19 pandemic to a diverse site of over 50 people currently. In the interim, it deepened its mission from providing a “destination news platform” just for women to empowering marginalized people, telling stories that mainstream media outlets tend to ignore.

Directors Heather Courtney (The Unafraid), Chelsea Hernandez (Building the American Dream), and Princess A. Hairston, making her feature debut, use fly-on-the-wall observational footage and one-on-one interviews to film the scattered staff around the country, segueing from the early pandemic days to the present.

After a less-than-riveting opening involving Ramshaw on Zoom discussing fund-raising, Breaking the News finds its footing in tagging along with Haines in Philadelphia, economics reporter Chabeli Carrazana in Orlando, Florida, and Kate Sosin, a nonbinary reporter in Los Angeles covering LGBTQ+ stories.

CEO Ramshaw describes how she co-founded The 19th* with Amanda Zamora, a colleague from The Texas Tribune, as a response to the groundswell of support for the #MeToo movement and women’s marches around the country. The pair—and a montage over the opening credits—emphasize how the majority of top newspaper editors are white men.

Wanting to give women a voice, they name their effort The 19th*, after the Constitutional Amendment that gave women the right to vote. The asterisk acknowledges the Black women and women of color initially omitted from voting and serves as a reminder to look always for who is left out of a story, they say.

Yet Zamora says that she didn’t want the site to become “just another platform for progressive White women.” While the directors don’t have warts-and-all access to every discussion, Breaking the News becomes most interesting when it shows how Ramshaw and others, although well-intentioned, bump their heads against unconscious biases.

On the site’s official launch day, for instance, Sosin says how they felt misgendered every time someone issued congrats to the “ladies” and “sisters” among them. “People need to be challenged to think outside their experiences,” Sosin says.

Sosin later feels gratified when an editor suggests they can take a day if they need to regroup after reporting on various anti-trans bills, or “all these stories telling you you’re not a person.”

“Do you know how rare that is?” Sosin says in thanks.

The film also shows Haines advocating for stories involving racism, such as Taylor’s shooting and the May 2020 video of a White woman calling police on a Black man in Central Park. “Centering women does not mean celebrating them all the time,” she says.

What keeps her, Sosin, and the others loyal to The 19th* is how sincere the founders and editors are in grappling with equality and equity. They also admire the site’s mission. Carrazana says how in other newsrooms, she’d have to pitch why a story about poor people mattered to middle- and upper-class readers, but just because they didn’t find the story relevant doesn’t mean the issue at hand disappears.

The latter part of Breaking the News becomes more rah-rah for The 19th*, especially around its coverage of the Texas abortion ban, the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, and the rollback of Roe v. Wade. The filmmakers intersperse headlines of the site’s coverage and reader comments with the journalists’ appearances on TV news shows and their asides.

While such work warms my heart as a longtime journalist, I’m most encouraged by seeing how The 19th* learned to evolve to survive. As much as Ramshaw feels validated that “this newsroom was necessary,” she’s also humble enough to acknowledge “how many blind spots I had going into this.” That makes Breaking the News an absorbing look at walking the talk.

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Valerie Kalfrin

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist turned freelance film writer whose work appears at, In Their Own League, Script, The Hollywood Reporter, and other outlets. Also a screenwriter and script consultant, she’s passionate about challenging stereotypes about gender and disability. Let’s tell better stories and tell stories better.