Top Journalists Discuss ‘Spotlight’ at Princeton Forum

Journalists James Steele and Laura Secor answer questions at the Garden Theatre Tuesday night. Photo: Krystal Knapp.
Journalists James Steele and Laura Secor discussed “Spotlight” at the Garden Theatre Tuesday night. Photo: Krystal Knapp.

The movie “Spotlight” tells the true story of the Boston Globe  investigative team that exposed the cover up of sexual abuse in the Catholic church by the Archdiocese of Boston.

“Spotlight” revisiting the reporters’ research methods, the shoe-leather reporting techniques, and the editorial process that led to the 2002 series that shed light on the decades-long child sex abuse scandal involving 249 priests and more than 1,000 victims in the Boston area. The Globe series, which included more than 600 articles, led to the resignation of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, and triggered similar investigations across the nation and the world.

More than 120 people packed the Garden Theatre Tuesday night for a special screening of the film, followed by a discussion with nationally renowned journalists Joe Stephens, James Steele and Laura Secor. Stephens, a Ferris Journalism Professor at Princeton, is a veteran investigative reporter for The Washington Post and has written extensively about sexual abuse in the church. Steele, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for Vanity Fair magazine. Secor, a former Boston Globe reporter, writes for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and other publications. The event was sponsored by the Princeton University Council of the Humanities.

Stephens called “Spotlight” the best movie about journalism since “All the President’s Men” and praised the film for its authentic portrayal of investigative reporters as “people who care and get out there to do the hard work, the unglamorous work of finding the facts.”

The film features the ensemble cast of Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy, Michael Keaton and John Slattery, with the male reporters wearing overstarched shirts and pleated, baggy khakis. The movie depicts the drudgery of looking up old clips, cranking microfilm machines, and dealing with bureaucratic roadblocks. Doors are slammed in reporters’ faces, attorneys hide behind the law when faced with past indiscretions, and difficult courthouse employees challenge every attempt to obtain public records.

“Spotlight” does not contain any of the typical Hollywood elements like guns, car chases, sex scenes or love affairs, yet makes the painstaking process of reading documents, entering data, and interviewing sources seem exciting. “One of the dramatic pivot points in the film was deciding to create a spreadsheet,” Stephens said.

The film offers accurate, nuanced portraits of journalism and the powerful institutions in the city of Boston, Secor said.

News Editor Marty Baron assigns the abuse story the first day he arrives at the paper as its new editor. It’s Baron’s status as an outsider coming to the Globe from the Miami Herald as “an unmarried man of the Jewish faith who hates baseball,” that gives him the distance necessary to ask uncomfortable questions of an institution with which the Globe historically had a cozy relationship.

One of the reasons the film is so credible is that it shows the newspaper as a human institution with both its flaws and strengths, Steele said. The film reveals how the Globe missed a chance to advance the abuse story as far back as 1993.

“The paper is not portrayed as a hero,” Steele said, praising how the film depicts the sometimes haphazard ways news outlets accumulate and report the news.

“Spotlight” also shows how the best journalism can sometimes entail sitting on a story rather than going to press, even when there is fierce competition from another newspaper. Baron resists the temptation to run with a juicy story about some priests, preferring to keep the team’s focus on the system that protected abusive priests.

After the film discussion, some audience members expressed concerns to the panelists about the health of investigative reporting, given that many news organizations have made large staff cuts in recent years. As Stephens pointed out, investigations are often expensive because they require original reporting, lots of time, and consultations with lawyers. “A lot of news organizations have jettisoned investigative reporting,” he said.

Steele said back when he started working for a Kansas City Times in the 1960s, he was the only investigative reporter.  Investigative reporting blossomed in the 1970s and continued to grow over the next two decades. Today there more investigative reporters than in the 1960s, but fewer than in the 1980s and 90s, he said.

“We can never have enough,” he said. “There are never enough.”

Numerous nonprofit investigative outlets have sprung up to pick up some of the slack, and some college and university investigative journalism programs function as “teaching hospitals” for students. But many areas of the country do not have investigative reporters digging for stories. Some towns no longer have daily or weekly news outlets covering their communities, and about a fifth of the journalists in the United States live in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., according to a Pew Research Center study.

“Everyone in the media is looking for a business model that is sustainable,” Steele said.

He encouraged journalism students to master the foundations of investigative reporting — to be curious, pay attention to detail, and have a healthy sense of skepticism, not cynicism.

“Get as much experience as you can,” he told students.

Steele said his biggest story breakthroughs came when reviewing hundreds of pages documents.

“you can’t underestimate the power of mundane documents,” he said.


  1. Spotlight will win most of the awards that it is nominated for, because it is powerful enough to literally change the religion of tens of millions of people.

    No other movie in history did that, and Hollywood will acknowledge it’s power, rewarding itself, as it should.

    This movie will have a more dramatic impact on people’s lives than any movie ever made, and Hollywood doesn’t want to be remembered as the institution that didn’t understand that.

    1. “Change religion of tens of millions of people”. What in the world does “religion” have to do with it? What in the Catholic religion caused this crisis? So many in society are championing this paradigm in regards to terrorism. Take this example:
      The anonymous graffiti artist Banksy is the latest to join in the trend of pointing out that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian migrant. The painting, on a wall at the “Jungle” migrant camp in Calais, France, shows Jobs with a bundle on his back and carrying a Mac Classic.

      Banksy and others are trying to show that the fears regarding Muslims coming into this country are groundless. Those who follow Islam are a positive force for society despite the few adherents that do awful things. And we all get the message they are not “true” adherents anyway.

      And Islam grows stronger.

      Now. Do you honestly thing Banksy would paint on a wall beside a billboard for “Spotlight” a picture of the 2000 years of Catholic service to the poor? To show that people need to focus on the essentials of this faith and not the bad things done by a few adherents?

      Not in a million years.

      It is the way that the media are approaching the Catholic scandal that will change peoples religion, not the actions for those who did not follow the teachings of that religion when the abused children and covered it up.

      1. Protecting pedophiles is the standard practice of the Catholic religion, standard policy practiced worldwide, consistently.

        It has nothing to do with the media. The Boston Globe reported the truth about the Catholic religion hiding rampant, organized child rape, just like it did everywhere else in the world.

        1. You can’t see it can you? “Protecting pedophiles is the standard practice of the Catholic religion” is equivalent to saying “terrorism is standard practice for the Muslim religion”. There is no difference. But I don’t know, maybe you believe that too.

          1. No, it’s not the same. It’s just a lie you made up to make yourself feel better.

            In 100% of cases, worldwide, consistently, the Catholic church hid & protected their pedo-priests. That is a fact, and makes it company policy.

            1. Again, The Catholic “Religion” has nothing to do with it. No one is is denying what happened, but it was people who did this, not a religion. People have no problem separating the those two issues when it comes to organizational abuse:

              Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature
Prepared for the U.S. Department of Education Office of the Under Secretary Policy and Program Studies Service Hofstra University’s Dr. Charol Shakeshaft, – “[T]hink the Catholic Church has a problem? The physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests.”
              Same report:Number of abusive educators: 225
Number reported by school officials to police: Zero

              There is no one saying that this is the end of California public education. Education had nothing to do with it. Bad people did bad things.

              Again. People separate the religion of terrorists from from their acts without great gusto. Hillary won’t even say “Islamic” terrorist. Why not with the Catholic religion?

              1. You’re an expert liar.

                1) It IS the Catholic religion. The Catholic religion was made up by the Catholic church leaders. If they all protect pedophiles, universally, it’s the religion.

                2) The comparison to public schools is a famous Catholic lie, and it will be made more famous over the next few months, as Catholics lie when the Spotlight movie is seen. Did you read the PREFACE to that study, where they said Shakeshaft confused child sex “abuse” with child sex “misconduct”.

                Catholic priests committed child sex abuse, having actual sex with children. Public schools had “misconduct”, which is swearing at children. It isn’t illegal, so it wasn’t reported to police.

                Lying is also very Catholic, since it is practiced by your leaders, universally, to defend your pedophilia.

                1. “The Catholic religion was made up by the Catholic church leaders….they all protect pedophiles, universally, it’s the religion.”

                  “Lying is also very Catholic”

                  Wait….what’s the word I’m looking for…b…bi…big…bigo…

                  Nah…Just forget it.

              2. Oh no. You’ve gone and cited the shakeshaft study. Patrick O’Malley 617-PATRICK (real name of neil allen) will be on you about how it is all a catholic lie, blah blah blah. The real problem is that it has inconvenient facts. Next, he will be demanding “PROOF” (emphasis on capital letters, he thinks this is an effective rhetorical device). Now, don’t ever expect him to offer the same “PROOF”. You should hear some of his crazy conspiracy theories, bu the way,

            2. “In 100% of cases, worldwide, consistently, the Catholic church hid & protected their pedo-priests.”

              And yet you told all your friends and family to give that *same* church money in the name of your Dear Old Ma. So you could pretend to be a doting and loving son, so they wouldn’t find out you secretly claim that all catholics are being raped for all eternity in hell. I guess it is a lot harder to pick up women for some sympathy at her funeral when you tell everyone what you really think. Isn’t that right, Patrick?

          2. Don’t bother reasoning with neil allen. His real name is Patrick O’Malley, aka 617-PATRICK – a self-proclaimed ‘social media expert’ who is too inept to actually disguise himself behind a troll handle. He will make blanket statements far, far worse than these you’ve objected to. For example, saying that all catholics will be raped in hell for all eternity, that all priests should be murdered, on and on and on.

  2. Director Tom McCarthy said in an interview “Religion needs to be accountable” for abuse. Accountability beyond any doubt, no one is protecting pedophiles here. But why use the word “religion”? Boys Scouts, The UN, Sports Teams, Public Teachers…etc etc. all abused and covered up. Why not “organizations” need be accountable. Certainly there is a great effort made to separate faith from deed when the media deals with the Islamic community. Hillary Clinton won’t even say “Islamic” terrorists. Great effort is being put into separating Islam from the evil deeds of some of it’s adherents. Yet the UN, when criticizing the abuse scandal, made direct reference to the Catholic Faith. “The United Nations has turned a noble report on child abuse into an assault on Catholic theology” the London Telegraph. And here we have McCarthy unable to separate faith from deed.

    McCarthy and Mark Ruffalo both said the Church is in decline because of this scandal, but Muslim communities grow. Yet both are dealing with “bad guys”. Politicians and the media deal with them very, very differently. Perhaps that is why there is a difference?

    Ruffalo also said “This movie is good for the Church” because the issue “needs to be exposed” This is the most reported on crime story in the history of media. Try and count the documentaries already made.: “Secrets of St. Peter’s” “Losing Faith” “Suffer the Children” “Deliver Us From Evil”
    “The Boys of St. Vincent” “Hand of God” “Sex Crimes of the Vatican”
    “Twist of Faith” Plus many, many more. and now “Spotlight”. Or the news stories. New York Times National Religion Correspondent Laurie Goodstein has written almost 100 stories on the Catholic abuse scandal and Zero on any other institution.

    Yet: “Think the Catholic Church has a problem? The physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests.”….Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature Prepared for the U.S. Department of Education Office of the Under Secretary Policy and Program Studies Service by Hofstra University’s Dr. Charol Shakeshaft

    “Spotight” turns out to be an ironic title. One actor gets the light while others that share the stage are left in the dark.

    Ruffalo also said “The Church needs to “Take Heed”


    The Catholic Church:

    -has instituted a “zero tolerance” policy in which any credibly accused priest is immediately removed from ministry. Law enforcement is also notified;

    -has trained over 5 million children in giving them skills to protect them from abuse;

    -has trained over 2 million adults, including 99 percent of all priests, in recognizing signs of abuse;

    -has conducted over 2 million background checks, including those in the intensified screening process for aspiring seminarians and priests;

    -has installed “Victim Assistance Coordinators” in every diocese, “assuring victims that they will be heard”;

    -has conducted annual independent audits of all dioceses to monitor compliance with the groundbreaking 2002 Charter for Protection of Children and Young People;

    -has instituted in all dioceses abuse review boards – often composed of child welfare experts, child psychologists, and abuse experts – to examine any claims of abuse against priests.

    No other organization even comes close to implementing the measures the Catholic Church has taken to protect children in its care. In this regard, the Catholic Church in the 21st century is the model for other institutions to follow in the safeguarding of youth.

    Please be careful that this scandal is not used to grind axes. Advocate for victims and treat Catholics fairly.

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