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.