By Emily Buder
“In my time, women usually had their life stories written for them. But I didn’t like the story I was given, so I wrote a new one.”
That’s Nellie Bly, the nom de plume of Elizabeth Cochrane. The story she wrote—in a newspaper in 1887, and, figuratively, of her life—would change the course of journalism in America.
A new short film from Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting brings Bly’s intrepid spirit to life. Nellie Bly Makes the News is an inventive and wildly entertaining account of the late reporter’s pioneering work in investigative journalism. The film’s director, Penny Lane, uses animation and a mix of documentary-style and reenacted interviews—drawn from primary sources, including Bly’s own writing and published interviews—to tell the story of a dynamic woman whose reportage is still being emulated today.
As a 23-year-old reporter in the pre-suffrage Victorian era, Bly became a household name for doing things women weren’t supposed to do. “Nellie was quite simply a great risk taker,” Lane told me. “She was so very, very daring. She wanted to do something great and to have an interesting life full of adventures, and she did that independently, without the support of a wealthy family.”
In the film, Lane presents Bly as an indomitable force. The director said she worked with Sammi Jo, the actress who portrays Bly, to bring out Bly’s impetuous nature. “We wanted her to have this audacity and braggadocio, but underneath that, the kind of sensitivity and insecurity that any young woman could relate to,” Lane said.
At just 16, Bly, dissatisfied with the coverage of women in her local newspaper, wrote an impassioned letter to the editor of The Pittsburgh Dispatch. He offered her a job, but her coverage was restricted to reporting on issues that specifically addressed women. “Women had no status in journalism when she started working,” Brooke Kroeger, Bly’s biographer, says in the film. “They weren’t in the newsrooms … The only roles for women were as columnists writing about society, about gardens, about fashion, about food.”
Bly soon found that her ambition far exceeded reporting on domestic matters. She took off for New York, where she persuaded her new editors at Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World to send her on a dangerous undercover assignment that would take her above and beyond the call of duty for journalists of the time. Over the course of 10 days in 1887, Bly masqueraded as a psychotic patient and was admitted to the most notorious mental asylum in New York City—the women’s asylum on Blackwell’s Island.
“The doctors and nurses did not care at all that I was perfectly sane,” Bly wrote in a harrowing exposé. “The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat trap. It is easy to get in, but once there, it is impossible to get out.” Bly’s piece sent shock waves through the city and ultimately led to increased funding to improve conditions at the institution. The enterprising tactics she employed in pursuit of the story came to be known as “stunt journalism” and earned Bly renown nationwide. Just a few years later, she would cement her place in history with a highly publicized travelogue of the record-breaking 72 days she spent circumnavigating the globe.
“Boldness goes a long way in changing the world,” Lane said. “Sometimes you have to will a new world into being.”
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A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.
For National History Day contestants. Upcoming — January 30: Iona College. February 4: Sagamore Hill. March 27: Ephemera Society of America. March 30: TBA April 4: Avon-on-Sea Public Library, Avon CT June 4-6: “Métiers et professions des médias (XVIIIe-XXIe siècles),” Université de Lausanne. Link to past appearances.
Coming March 2020: Front Pages, Front Lines: Media and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage, Linda Steiner, Carolyn Kitch, Brooke Kroeger, eds.