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'Spotlight' shows why journalism still matters

Posted: Feb. 26, 2016 | Tags: journalism


Photo by Lindsay Maizland for IRW

Jane Hall talks to Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron about the making of the movie “Spotlight," nominated for six Oscars.

Marty Baron thought of a number of reasons why a movie about reporters investigating child sexual abuse that implicated priests would not make it to the big screen.

It deals with a sensitive subject, for one. It is told by journalists whose work neither needs special effects nor superheroes to be depicted in film. Most of all, a popular pope sits in the Vatican.

Yet for all the shortcomings Baron had in mind, the idea proposed to him seven years ago turned out to be one of the most celebrated movies of the year: “Spotlight.” The film is nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Named after The Boston Globe’s investigations unit, “Spotlight” tells the story of how a team of reporters exposed the cover-up of sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests in Boston. Baron, who was portrayed by actor Liev Schreiber, was at the helm of the Globe at the time; he wanted the Spotlight reporters to dig deeper into allegations of sexual abuse within the Church. Baron is now the executive editor of The Washington Post.

Baron, who spoke at the Doyle/Forman Theater at American University Wednesday night, talked about his role in making the film, why investigative journalism matters and how, 14 years later, The Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation continues to make an impact.

The event, co-sponsored by the School of Communication, Investigative Reporting Workshop and the Center for Media and Social Impact, was part of AU’s “Movies That Matter” series.

“It’s important that we ask ourselves the hardest questions before the public asks us those questions.”

— Marty Baron


Baron said the film resonated with different groups of people in different ways. That includes journalists, survivors of sexual abuse and even a segment of the public, who, however skeptical they may be, has come to appreciate the role of investigative reporting.

“I think it certainly resonated with journalists who feel that it’s an authentic portrayal of the work that they do and the purpose of the work that they perform,” he said.

Baron described the efforts made by the filmmakers to get as close to how events actually unfolded during The Globe’s investigation. Director Tom McCarthy and writer Josh Singer conducted extensive interviews. Baron said he was interviewed and re-interviewed to the point that he had nothing more to say — and learned things about his own newsroom that he didn't know at the time.

What makes “Spotlight” an honest representation of journalism is that it also highlighted the flaws of what Baron calls an “imperfect profession.” Sources who kept telling the Spotlight team that they had already alerted The Globe about the abuse were part of the narrative.

“We miss stories all the time,” Baron said, noting that information can get lost in the daily grind of reporting.

He said what makes the film realistic is that it portrays journalists as real people. “It doesn’t really make reporters out to be heroes. It makes the reporters out to be people who are, at long last, doing their jobs.”

One of the most pivotal moments occurs when the team is told the Globe isn't going to publish yet, even though reporters knew the names of several priests involved, because the scope of the story was not yet broad enough; they didn't have enough to show that there was a coverup. The scene was based on a memo Baron wrote.

This key event in the investigation offers some lessons for reporters on how to handle personal feelings in their jobs. Baron said that journalists can't let their emotions take over.

“We’re supposed to be the rational players in these things,” he said. “I think it’s important that we sit back and understand all of the facts, when we should publish and when we shouldn't publish, what facts we still need to gather.”

One of the riskiest things in journalism, he said, is what one doesn’t know. “The biggest embarrassment comes up when you publish, and you discover there was some thing you did not ask, you did not pursue, and it undermines your story.”

In the Internet environment where stories are churned out quickly, Baron acknowledged that it can be difficult to sit on a story for a long period of time. He stressed the importance of being self-critical.

“It’s important that we ask ourselves the hardest questions before the public asks us those questions,” he said.

Journalism Professor Jane Hall, who covered the media for The Los Angeles Times, moderated the conversation, and asked Baron whether he is optimistic about the future of investigative journalism, given the financial challenges and consolidation of ownership.

Owners and publishers, Baron said, need to understand the essence of journalism and journalists — what they stand for and what binds them to readers. 

“I think our readers really do expect us to be independent,” he said. “They expect us to hold the powerful interests accountable. They expect us to take appropriate risks.”

Baron said he does not have absolute confidence that all owners and publishers think this way, but he believes that many do. 

“I believe the single most irresponsible thing we could do would be to abandon this kind of work, and to stop holding powerful interests accountable,” he said.

The sister of a victim of abuse asked Baron if he knew how many victims each priests had, but Baron said it is not a “numbers game.”

“The Church is supposed to be a refuge,” he said, pointing out that the core issue was what the Church did when senior clergy found out about the grave abuse committed by priests repeatedly. In The Globe’s investigation, the Church chose to protect its reputation, and priests were transferred to other parishes, repeatedly, in some cases.

This kind of reporting, as dramatized in “Spotlight,” resonated strongly with survivors. Baron said it encouraged survivors to come forward and talk about the abuse they suffered. 

At a talk he gave last week at Lehigh University, he said one of the first people to get up during the open forum was an 82-year-old who was sexually abused at age 12. The man said he had never told anyone about his experience until he saw the film that day.

Baron recalls the man telling him: “All I can say is thank you.”

“That was incredibly moving,” Baron said.

The clip from below includes the movie trailer; other clips can be found here.

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