Spotlight: Required Viewing for Religion Journalism Teachers, Scholars

By Debra Mason, Director of the Center of Religion and the Professions, University of Missouri’s School of Journalism

As a religion reporter and director of a professional association of religion journalists, I knew much of what to expect from Spotlight, the critically acclaimed film that details efforts by The Boston Globe’s investigative unit to cover clergy abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.

The film, which opened nationwide Nov. 18, details the Globe’s investigation, from its start under then new editor Marty Baron, to the first day of publication in January 2002. The newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for its documentation of “systemic” cover-ups of dozens of abusive priests being moved from parish to parish, without criminal charges.

The story line was familiar. In the 2000s, following The Globe’s explosive report, nearly every religion journalist in the country received calls from abuse victims whose complaints had previously gone unreported. Some of us heard from victims decades earlier; for me it was in the late 1980s, when I was a religion beat reporter in Ohio. But the unsealing of court records, pressure from advocacy groups and other changes that opened up troves of documents, moved the story from he-said, she-said, to documented criminal acts more easily reported.

Although documents were more easily found after The Globe coverage, it nonetheless remained grueling to listen to the life-long mental and physical effects of abuse on its victims. The beat lost a number of veteran journalists in the 2000s, victims of burnout from covering clergy abuse day after day. For several years, religion beat reporters wrote of little else.

But what Spotlight does superbly is show some hazards of writing about terrible moral failures of an institution you rely on for spiritual guidance. Each Spotlight team—The Globe’s name for its investigative journalist unit—was raised Roman Catholic. Although most were “lapsed” Catholics, it nonetheless shows the anger, emotional pain and confusion they experienced individually as the magnitude of abuse and coverup became clear.

Covering corruption, hypocrisy, and crime within a faith is a hazard of the religion beat and one caution I share with religion reporting students. Religion beat specialists learn things that make you question, in intimate ways, the meaning of faith, power, human agency, vocation and values. For some, notably former Los Angeles Times Reporter William Lobdell, it’s too much. Lobdell famously wrote the book Losing My Religion, about losing his faith after covering a string of clergy abuse and other stories.

The film also shows, if briefly, how victims of child abuse often struggle with shame, guilt and emotional fragility their entire lives. Substance abuse, suicide and an inability to function in social settings are among the brokenness journalists sometimes encounter among abuse victims. Young journalists, especially, need to see beyond the short-term gain of a story and understand the need to take extra care when reporting on this population.

The movie also doesn’t gloss over problems that exist in every newsroom, with many investigative stories. For example, previous stories about abuse were buried in the Globe’s metro section years earlier. Skeptical colleagues were considerable nay-sayers. The Catholic Church put up repeated road blocks, as did some civil servants.

Finally, as the closing notes say, the Globe did more than 600 followup stories. Many of these were written by Globe Religion Reporter Michael Paulson. Although Michael is only mentioned a couple times in Spotlight, he heavily tracked the impact and followup of the reporting, sharing in the paper’s Pulitzer.

Some of the journalists in real life have complained about their portrayals, so it is important to remember that the story is fictionalized to some extent.

Veteran journalist and trainer Steve Buttry has added his suggestions (https://stevebuttry.wordpress.com/2015/11/24/responding-to-spotlight-advice-for-investigating-sexual-abuse-by-clergy/s) for lessons on how to cover clergy abuse. It’s a powerful teaching moment that will remain relevant for years to come.

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