Ripped From the Headlines: Americans Love a True Story

"Good reporting is about good storytelling," said Thompson. "The kinds of things done on '20/20' -- the treatment, the plot, the whole presentation -- are clearly professionally crafted. Those features are a dress rehearsal for what can be a movie. When good reporters scour the nation for good stories, they are naturals begging to be a movie by Will Smith."

A Life-Affirming Story

"In Pursuit of Happiness," the Brown report on Chris Gardner, aired in 2003. ABC's news team spotted a local television feature on Gardner, then a struggling salesman trying to raise his son, which was taped in a San Francisco soup kitchen.

The intentional misspelling of the movie title refers to a scene in the film in which the word appears on the wall of a day care center where Gardner once considered leaving his infant son, Chris Jr., during some of Gardner's worst days.

Will Smith stars as Gardner with his real-life son Jaden, then 9 years old. Actress Thandie Newton plays the wife who leaves Gardner when he takes over guardianship of their son.

After Brown's "20/20" report, Gardner was barraged with requests for interviews, including a spot on the Oprah show. He later wrote a book about his struggle and has become a motivational speaker on the topic of homelessness.

Gardner, 52, is now owner and CEO of Christopher Gardner International Holdings, with offices in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. He recently told the Chicago Sun-Times that the plot for the movie about the summer of 1981, which he spent with his son sleeping in parks, train stations and a public bathroom, is not just his own personal story.

"It's about every father who had to be both the father and the mother," he said. "It's about every mother who had to be the mother and father. It's the story of my life, but it's not about me."

A common theme in the Brown features that have inspired movies is triumph over adversity.

"Their Second Chance," with Lindsay Wagner, dealt with a young woman given up for adoption who is reunited with her birth parents; "Nicholas' Gift" portrayed an American couple on vacation in Italy with their two children who are attacked and shot by highway bandits; "A Dream Come True" explored the life of a woman who believed she'd been reincarnated; and "A Lifetime of Love" followed two autistic sisters.

In the era of the 24-hour cable news cycle, human-interest reporting is a growing trend that feeds American appetites for reality drama in fictionalized form.

Truth Is Power

"We've always been suckers for a true story," said Syracuse's Thompson. "Journalism tends to be 'just the facts ma'am.' What feature stories allow is taking what we call news and basing it in the experiences of individual people. It takes journalism into the realm of art."

However, some media analysts say that when reporters cross the journalism-entertainment boundary -- no matter how well-intentioned and researched their stories -- they can oversimplify complicated issues like the economics of poverty.

"In general, networks have bent over backward to give us drama at the cost of giving a larger picture," said Joseph Dorman, a former senior producer for PBS's "Media Matters" and a professor of documentary film at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

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