In 2015, Tom McCarthy's film Spotlight received widespread praise. The director is back with another project that has journalists at its center—though it's a TV series instead of a movie. And instead of following The Boston Globe, this show follows the reporters and editors at the fictional Alaska Daily.
Alaska Daily, which premieres Oct. 6 on ABC, is about investigative journalist Eileen Fitzerald's (Hilary Swank) new life in Anchorage, Alaska. She reluctantly leaves her life in New York after a fallout with the major publication she worked at, and starts a job at the daily newspaper Alaska Daily. Eileen's first assignment is to report on the case of Gloria Nanmac: an Indigenous woman who went missing two years ago and whose death has been an unsolved mystery.
For McCarthy, highlighting the Missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) crisis through the show was intentional. Alaska Daily was inspired by "Lawless," a series published by the Anchorage Daily News and ProPublica that examined sexual abuse in Alaska."I just felt like to set a journalism show in Alaska and not take some time to examine that would be almost negligent," McCarthy said at ABC's Television Critics Association summer press tour panel. He saw the show as an opportunity to "put such an important topic onto mainstream TV, and maybe start a conversation with the 'Lower 48,' specifically, as the Alaskans like to refer to us."
Prior to Alaska Daily, McCarthy said he knew very little about the state and about the MMIW crisis. "It's been an incredible learning experience," he said. "It's driven by — in large part, by the two Alaska native writers in the room who have taken great pains to really educate us and bring us up to speed on what we have to know." The team has also worked with Alaska-based organizations for research. "Just like good reporters, we're trying to get it right," McCarthy said. "We're trying to be as authentic as we have to be."
Grace Dove, who stars as Rosalind "Roz" Friendly — a local reporter who teams up with Eileen — said the MMIW crisis is nothing new. "There's a lot of distrust because we have been dealing with the MMIW and two-spirit-girls-and-boys situation for a long time," she said. "As an Alaska native, we see a lot of people come in and maybe do it for the wrong reasons, maybe bring up these stories for the attention but not actually put in the work that it's going to take to support Indigenous peoples." Dove, who identifies as a SECWAC person, said it's "incredible" to see the issue be on network television. "A lot of people are hopefully going to be curious and open and see it from a different lens," Dove said.
At the panel, showrunner Peter Elkoff also emphasized that the show wants to go beyond addressing Gloria's case. "Part of the way that we've tried to tell this story in a respectful and not sensational way is to tell the story not just of who murdered Gloria Nenmac, but why is the system broken?" he said. "Why is the whole operation, particularly in Alaska, failing Indigenous women?"
For Swank, the actor said she was "consumed" after reading "Lawless," which McCarthy shared with her. "It is material that matters," she said. "We had a day player last week who said, 'My mom went missing. She was murdered and she went missing.' And this is happening. It's not just something that we're telling." The actor wanted to be a part of a project where viewers can learn while they watch.
McCarthy hopes that viewers can learn something about the state of journalism, too. "The significance of this show is local reporting," he said. "These sort of news deserts that are evolving across our country where there's no more local journalists or local papers are really detrimental — and not just to a democracy and politics but to the communities that they represent."
The director mentioned the Anchorage Daily News. "They're a tremendous group of editors and reporters, and they're covering, as Jeff [Perry] says in the show, a state 2½ times the size of Texas, right? That's incredibly impressive," he said. "I wanted the American people to understand that and why it's worth supporting journalists and the work they do." The timing of the show is also significant, since McCarthy said now is a time when there's "recurring violence against reporters."
With Alaska Daily, McCarthy hoped to portray not just the work that journalists do but who they are. "Let's try to open this up and really understand these people and show not just how the sausage gets made but how they see everything in their lives through the lens of their craft and their passion," he said.
Alaska Daily premieres Oct. 6 on ABC at 10/9c and will be available to stream on Hulu.