The Real Work of Journalists: 7 Ways the Movie Spotlight Got it Right

It’s hard to overstate how much I enjoyed the movie Spotlight. It chronicles the difficult, messy work of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team as they worked to uncover the priest abuse scandal in Boston (and beyond). The dialogue is excellent and it’s well acted. As a long-time journalist, I appreciated the way journalists were portrayed: as hard-working people doing an often thankless job because they care about illuminating the truth. Here are seven examples from the movie Spotlight of how journalists really do their job.

  1. We’re ready to go at a moment’s notice. When one of the characters knocks on a door and a priest opens the door, she quickly gathers her wits and begins asking him questions. She carefully words her queries, but does not avoid the painful topic of abuse.
  2. We track down sources, even if they won’t agree to a meeting. When I worked in a state capitol, other reporters and I often staked out offices, waiting for those we needed to interview to step into the hall so we could begin peppering them with questions. If you have to interview someone, you do all you can (within legal limits) to gain access to that person. That means there can be some boring downtime while you wait, but you have to be ready to go the moment that person emerges into the hallway. There were a couple of instances in the movie where reporters took advantage of the stake out to gain access.
  3. We often don’t see the full story initially. There’s a line in the movie from editor Marty Baron: “Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we spend most of our time stumbling around the dark.” It’s true because we have the difficult task of digging, researching, and uncovering. It’s hard to know the scope of your story at the outset. This was perfectly illustrated in the movie as we saw the scope of the story expand beyond what the reporters thought possible.
  4. We get lots of story pitches, and it’s hard to know which ones to take seriously. When I worked the assignment desk at a large television station in California. I received a call from a pay phone. It was a frustrated homeless woman who told me a story that, if true, was HUGE. I had to make a call as a recent j-school grad: take her seriously or dismiss her. After asking some questions, I told her I was interested in hearing more, but needed her to call back at a specific time the next day. Before we spoke again, I did some digging with some sources I had in city government and on the police force. In the end, I did a ton of leg work and then helped a reporter produce a story. It resulted in a high-ranking city official quitting her job in disgrace. In Spotlight, we discover reporters had some of the pieces of the priest sex abuse story years earlier, but had not taken the leads seriously enough to pursue a story. It happens in newsrooms all the time.
  5. Off-the-record information is useful. When I taught journalism classes, I had students every semester who asked about how to use off-the-record tips. My answer: use it to point you in the right direction. Off-the-record information can help you know who you need to interview, an issue you need to raise in an interview, or a place to find crucial information you need to continue working on your story. That was the case for a reporter in Spotlight. A tip from a lawyer helped him access records that were very important to the story.
  6. Open records are vital. When editor Marty Baron came to the Globe, he arrived from Florida where there were more liberal sunshine laws. He wasted little time going to court to get records unsealed in the priest abuse cases. Open records enable reporters to do a thorough reporting job.
  7. Sometimes it takes an outside voice to make you see things in a different way. When he took the helm at the globe, Marty Baron was an outsider, giving him a fresh perspective on the two priest abuse cases that had come to light, but gained little special coverage. He wasn’t afraid to challenge a massive institution in Boston, and push his staff to set aside their skepticism of him and dig deeper into the story.

What did you think of the movie Spotlight?

Top image via Flickr by William Hook