02/17/2015 08:25 am ET Updated Apr 19, 2015

House of Cards : From a Student Journalist's Perspective


Warning: House of Cards spoilers below.

A thumping beat pulsates as Frank Underwood, played by an intense Kevin Spacey, rests his fists on the President's desk while his voiceover asks, "You want to know what takes real courage?" in Netflix's recently released House of Cards season three trailer.

The new season will premiere on February 27 and I'm eagerly counting down the days until my reunion with the Underwoods as well as their ever-increasing number of enemies.

At first glance, House of Cards appears to only be a show about the political ascension of a ruthless couple, Frank and Claire Underwood (played by an immaculate and icy Robin Wright). Frank goes from Democratic Majority Whip in the beginning of the first season to the President of the United States by the end of the second season. But there's more to this David Fincher-directed and Beau Willimon-scripted show than meets the eye.

To a large extent this show is about journalism: its pitfalls, triumphs and ever-changing nature. Whenever a journalist appears on House of Cards, I think about the work I do as a student reporter. I'm also reminded of  my high school AP U.S. government class and the three hallowed functions of journalism: watchdog, gatekeeper and scorekeeper.

Textbook journalism and my idealistic view of its roles are taken for a spin in this series. Journalism is integral to the show's plot and character development but instead of emerging as the strong detergent that attacks the Underwoods' dirty laundry, it's equally stained with questionable motives and actions.

In season one, I desperately wanted to empathize and connect with Kate Mara's Zoe Barnes, a rookie reporter at the Washington Herald. She was ambitious, clever and witty -- everything I admired in female characters yet, something about her grated on my nerves. I wondered if it was because she appeared to be blatantly flouting of journalistic ethics for personal gain or her willingness to be reduced to Frank's mouthpiece. Except, her character is not that clear-cut (spoiler: no one is in the show).

In reality, Zoe embodied the 21st century struggles that many reporters face, the same struggles that I encounter. Newspapers are striving to stay relevant and maintain high standards, two things which aren't always compatible. Striking that delicate balance is hard, harder if you're Zoe Barnes and disrupting the balance actually kills you. As soon as Zoe starts evaluating the quality of the tidbits of information that Frank has been feeding her instead of the expediency with which they are delivered, Frank murders her.

The Washington Herald is not engaging enough to capture today's audience that's obsessed with social media and rapid-fire information. The rows of empty cubicles seem to indicate the turn of events indicate the public neglect. Zoe wanted to change that, enough so that she not only earned the label "twitter twat" but was willing to sleep with Frank to get quick inside updates. Of course, there was personal gain like Zoe's career and ego at stake as well but, at its core it was a naive attempt at "saving" journalism.

Hammerschmidt, Zoe's stalwart and traditional boss believed that the Washington Herald needed to stay connected with its core audience that cared about the quality of the work they were producing instead of trying to be hip and innovative. The conflict between Zoe and Hammerschmidt is one that occurs everyday in news outlets worldwide.

Frank goes to great lengths to manipulate the media via Zoe and then eventually kills her to keep her quiet. Why? Because he knows the power media holds. Journalism is still the watchdog, gatekeeper and scorekeeper. While politicians do their best to control it, media also exercises its influence on politicians.

House of Cards seems to be asking if journalism is going the way of sensationalism and click-baiting while steadily forgoing ethics and facts. Despite its questioning of where contemporary journalism is headed, the series serves to underscore the continuing importance of journalism.

With Zoe dead, Luke imprisoned and Janine scared, there's only Ayla Sayyad left. A reporter for the Wall Street Telegraph, she exposes the ex-best friend of the now ex-President, Raymond Tusk. Granted, this leads to a murderer becoming the President of the nation but I have a feeling Ayla may be the one to truly show what journalism is capable of.

"You want to know what takes real courage? Holding it all together when the stakes are this high" is the answer Frank gives in season three's teaser trailer. Here's to hoping that the journalists in House of Cards show that they have real courage.

By: Tanaz Ahmed, University of Michigan