Nice Work If You Can Get It: Spotlight and the Future of Investigative Journalism

This piece was written for The Georgetown Voice. Read it there, and check out our latest work! 

Over and over again, taking responsibility proves to be a challenging task for human beings and their institutions. Individuals go to great lengths to deny and conceal; as a result, others must go even further to unpack the truths that threaten our communities and livelihoods. Investigative journalism is a powerful medium, one that has condemned and exposed individuals, institutions, and governments. In the film world, depictions of investigative reporting have often cast the men and women behind the stories as heroes, as renegades working outside of and above whatever corruption they seek to uncover.

With the release of the movie Spotlight, which details The Boston Globe’s investigation of the Massachusetts Catholic sex abuse scandal, director Tom McCarthy has graduated from the mold that defines iconic journalism films such as All the President’s Men, the critically acclaimed film following two journalists as they exposed the Watergate Scandal. Instead of glorifying the paper’s reporters, McCarthy and co-screenwriter Josh Singer attempt to portray them as they were: intelligent but flawed individuals, capable of fantastic reporting but also of missing or neglecting crucial information.

Marty Baron, Executive Editor of The Washington Post, views Spotlight as more aware of the realities of investigative reporters. In an email to the Voice, Baron wrote, “I’m not an expert on Hollywood depictions of journalists. Generally, however, they seem to depict us as crusaders or as rascals, mostly the latter. The beauty of this film is that it recognizes that journalists even as they can do a lot of good, have their flaws. And sometimes those flaws mean we fail to pursue stories as energetically or as deeply as we should.”

Whereas All The President’s Men gave us Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in ardent pursuit of political justice, white knights valiantly tracking down every lead and clue, Spotlight places Globe reporters inside the very system they hope to lay bare. The Catholic Church almost runs Boston, in reality and in the cinematic creation. Churches loom in shot after shot, glaring down at the reporters as they move from house to house, hunting down priests and questioning their victims. All The President’s Men shows two heroes sinking into the filth to come up with their story, working in the shadows of Washington, but Spotlight’s main players emerge from the pervasive grime, struggling against the might of an institution that dominates Boston’s value system in broad daylight.

Though the broader results and implications of work like the Spotlight team’s lend themselves to dramatic performances, the day-to-day reporting hardly makes for a suspenseful action thriller. Eileen McNamara, the former Globe reporter and columnist largely responsible for sparking the investigation depicted in Spotlight, spoke to the Voice on this topic. “A lot of people were skeptical that this story could translate to film,” McNamara said. “The work that we do is pretty tedious — there’s nothing particularly cinematic about looking through court files.”

Baron thought similarly. “I am amazed at how they made the often mundane, tedious work of journalists look spectacularly interesting,” he wrote.

They are not wrong. Though much of the film takes place in file rooms, empty courthouses, and cramped Globe office spaces, the narrative remains captivating throughout. McCarthy knows how to best capture and excite his audiences, notably in Win Win and The Visitor, and Singer’s experience on The West Wingsurely helped make Spotlight’s script a taut and riveting one.

The efficiency of the film pairs well with the productivity of the Spotlight team, played with convincing energy by Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, and Mark Ruffalo. No one role or performer steals the stage. Though Keaton, Ruffalo, and Stanley Tucci all turn in memorable scenes, collaboration reigns supreme, individual senses of purpose augmented by a collective thirst for justice.

What stands out in Spotlight is the persistence of the journalists, their drive to continue working despite opposition from the Church and its allies. Baron sees the Spotlight team’s work as necessary in the face of crimes like those committed by the Church. “Whenever there is potential wrongdoing, particularly by a powerful institution like the Church, journalists are obligated to investigate—and to investigate aggressively,” he said. “That’s what drove the Globe’s work. The opposition of the Church and any resistance in other Boston circles should be immaterial. This was a cover-up of breathtaking scope by an institution that should be considered a safe place, a refuge. When you come to realize all that, a team of journalists with integrity can’t help but continue its work.”

Likewise, McNamara sees the work as imperative for those in the field, people who play an important role in upholding our society’s moral values. “I’m not sure about [the designation]‘hero,’” she said. “I’m sure about the value we provide in the democracy. You can’t have one without us. People don’t go into journalism to become rich and famous … They do it because it was a calling, a vocation, a mission to serve the public. Shining a light in dark places is a public task.”

IMDb
IMDb

With media forms constantly evolving and digitizing, investigative journalism faces a murky future, particularly in print form. Technology and data threaten to replace the work of reporters like those who led the Spotlight team, individuals who walk the streets and rifle through file rooms while waiting hours on end to get their hands on court documents. The question remains: is there room for in-depth investigative reporting in the future of journalism? Will we see anything like the Spotlightteam’s work in five years? In ten?

Baron certainly likes to think so. “Data journalists are highly valued in newsrooms now because of their ability to compile and analyze data sets … But data sets alone don’t make stories. You still need journalists to do ground-level reporting. You can’t just look at data. You also need to talk to people,” he said. “Our industry and profession are under enormous financial pressure, and that’s been the case for a long time. Notwithstanding the financial pressures, however, I believe we’re obligated to do investigative work. Our politicians, policy makers, business people, nonprofit leaders, and even media industry leaders need to know that they will always be held accountable for what they do.”

The newspaper industry suffers in the shadows of social media and the never-ending news cycle, one filled with shouting matches and conjecture. McNamara hopes investigative reporting can survive amongst the chaos of newer platforms. She asserted, “We want the public to see it isn’t all about television and talking heads shouting at each other. Real journalism is verification. The reliance in this movie in the reporting is on documentation. Those people who are critics of journalism think we just assert things from political bias. That is not what we do. We verify.”

Few would argue with the vision of journalism Baron and McNamara project, but can Spotlight play an active role in making/keeping that vision a reality?

We will certainly see McCarthy, Singer, and their extraordinary cast make the rounds on the awards circuit this winter, but the fact remains that a month from now, films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 will consume the majority of moviegoers’ attention. Awards attention and nominations will keep Spotlight in the cultural conscience for those who want it to be there, but Han Solo and Katniss Everdeen will fill every nook and cranny of the commercial world, an entity irrevocably more massive than said cultural conscience.

Baron holds out hope for McCarthy’s independent triumph. When asked if a film like Spotlight can make a cultural impact amongst the aforementioned blockbusters he said, “I hope Spotlight will become a success commercially and perhaps encourage more sophisticated, nuanced, intelligent films. There’s no question that movies can have an enormous cultural impact, and I hope this one leads the public to, first, recognize that we should give voice to those who’ve suffered (in this case, survivors of abuse) and, second, recognize that we need strong investigative reporting and vigorous local journalism to hold powerful institutions and individuals accountable. If journalists don’t do it, who will?”

Compared to the box-office titans that will soon open in theaters nationwide, Spotlight remains a blip on the commercial radar. Nevertheless, the Spotlight team has produced tangible results since its work first broke in early 2002. Besides their 2003 Pulitzer victory, their work also led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, who at the time served as Archbishop of Boston. The Spotlight investigation unearthed widespread abuse not only in Massachusetts churches but in communities across the United States and the world.

Spotlight has not only helped to expose offenders, but also to support victims. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), has grown exponentially in the past twenty years, with membership now totaling over 21,000 across 79 countries. The group aims to both help victims and protect vulnerable individuals from abuse.

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IMDb

For Becky Ianni, SNAP’s Virginia State Leader, Spotlight has reinvigorated the fight for justice against abusive priests. She wrote, “Spotlight has re-energized me as leader… It makes me want to renew my efforts to reach out to victims who are feeling alone and isolated. I believe that the movie will encourage victims who are still suffering in silence to speak out. I also hope that it will inspire journalists to continue to investigate and expose these crimes against children… and will educate the public about the sexual abuse of children in a powerful institution and how that institution put children in danger by their actions and inactions.”

The work is, of course, ongoing. Awareness of this issue has increased and will continue to do so, but SNAP’s work is as important now as ever before. Ianni knows how crucial her organization can be in saving and protecting lives. “SNAP will continue to work to expose those that abuse children and those that cover up that abuse, which is the bigger problem,” she wrote. “We are always trying to find new and better ways to reach out to those victims who are still suffering in silence.”

All the President’s Men inspired a generation of journalists who longed to challenge and improve our nation’s most powerful institutions. One is left wondering if Spotlight can do the same. The film’s narrative would certainly seem to have that potential. Before those stars of tomorrow can shine, though, they will have to find environments and jobs that allow them to do so.

McCarthy’s film has given us a raw and revealing look at not only the fallible individuals of the Catholic Church, but also those of the journalistic world. In the place of dramatized mavericks stand men and women who care for their communities and the job they inhabit. Even if the media landscape shifts enough to render a team like Spotlight impractical, they will never be irrelevant. The work transcends the job title, and can be done in all sorts of ways – by leaders like those in SNAP but also by concerned and cognizant citizens everywhere.

“Shining a light in dark places is a public task,” McNamara told the Voice. If a society fails to shine its lights, the darkness only spreads. Journalists verify so that individuals can take action to affect meaningful change. One hopes that someone out there—whether investigative journalist becomes an antique term or not—keeps looking for verification, before the dark places expand and multiply, pervasive and impenetrable.

 

 

About Our Contributors

 

MARTY BARON currently serves as the Executive Editor of The Washington Post. From 2001 until 2012, he served as the Editor of The Boston Globe. In his time at the Globe, he oversaw many investigative projects, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Boston church sex abuse scandal.

EILEEN MCNAMARA is a professor of journalism at Brandeis University. She wrote for The Boston Globefor nearly thirty years, and in 1997 she won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. Her 2001 column on abusive priest John J. Geoghan motivated Baron and the Globe’s Spotlight investigative team to pursue the coverage that would become the basis for the film, Spotlight.

BECKY IANNI is the Virginia State Leader for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). She coordinates and holds monthly support meetings for the northern Virginia region. She can be reached at SNAPVirginia@cox.net.

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About Author: Brian McMahon

Brian is an author and co-founder of GoodWillWatching. He likes to write and is deathly afraid of bugs. His Great American Novel, not yet titled or existent, will be shocking the world some time or another. He once stayed up for two days straight because of poor information regarding the arrival of Halley’s Comet, which was not due for approximately 57 years. You can follow him @bm1313 on Twitter, or in real life from a safe distance.