The new film Spotlight tells the story of an investigation by a team of reporters at the Boston Globe newspaper in the early 2000s. The reporters documented extensive child abuse by priests and brothers in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. Their investigation also exposed a cover-up by church officials, who knew that widespread abuse had been happening for several decades but failed to do anything meaningful to stop it.
I saw Spotlight this week, and I highly recommend it. It’s a fascinating and engaging film. And as a former newspaper reporter, I thought the film very realistically depicted the work of reporting, especially in showing the amount of legwork and detailed research that goes into writing a major news story. It also illustrated the often-overlooked contexts within which news stories develop – in this case, the elites in Boston society that helped to keep the abuse hidden, and that also discouraged the Globe from pursuing the story.
However, as much as I enjoyed Spotlight, it also made me feel very sad – because the kind of newspaper reporting it depicts is disappearing. The film ends with a long list of the cities in the Boston area and around the world where abuse has been uncovered within the Catholic church since the Globe‘s investigations. But it could just as easily have ended with a list of all the newspapers that have closed, merged, or downsized during the same period, and which can probably no longer do the sort of reporting that Spotlight portrays. The Globe itself could be on that list; just last month, one of its longest-serving and most respected writers accepted a buyout from his job as part of a “general restructuring” of the newsroom staff. He was told that if he didn’t leave, “they would have gotten rid of someone younger”.
No one should walk out of this movie thinking, “Whew, thank goodness we have the media to catch bad things like this”. Because, more and more, we don’t.
It’s no secret that print media of all kinds are struggling to survive. This is partly because it’s hard for print media to compete with the immediacy and the easy-to-digest content in other media. But a lot of print newspapers haven’t helped their own situations. Many newspapers foolishly chose to ignore free online competition for advertising, like Craigslist, and then were surprised when their own advertising revenues shrunk. Other newspapers wrongly assumed that their readers would willingly pay for online content, even when there were free online alternatives with the same or better information. Or they assumed that readers would read online content even when the newspaper’s website was badly designed or technologically challenged. As one of my friends says, newspapers aren’t just dying, they’re also committing suicide.
We also can’t forget newspaper owners that treat newspapers as nothing more than revenue generators, or as their personal ATMs. In the last few weeks, it was revealed that the Postmedia chain of newspapers in Canada paid its executives almost $1 million in bonuses during a period when the company’s revenues dramatically declined. Postmedia now has the same credit rating as the nearly bankrupt country of Greece. And, by treating newspapers simply as businesses, owners and executives have lost sight of the media’s larger roles and responsibilities in society.
Spotlight shows what we are losing because of these changes in our media. We are losing the power of the media to identify wrongdoers, and to hold wrongdoers to account. Spotlight shows how important that power is to the functioning of a truly democratic and fair society – the power of an independent voice that can speak up when something needs to be changed, and that can get change to happen.
The reporters that Spotlight depicts uncovered horrific and systemic wrongs that deserved to be exposed – but the reporters were only able to reveal those wrongs because their newspaper gave them the time and the resources to develop the stories. Fewer and fewer newspapers have the staff or the resources to support that kind of long-term, intensive work, especially when it doesn’t result in immediate outputs. And the Globe’s management also supported the reporters when their work was criticized, and when the newspaper was pressured to drop the investigation. Sadly, many newspapers now would likely give in to such criticism or pressure, for fear of alienating advertisers and readers. The larger importance of investigative reporting in society is increasingly being drowned out by economic considerations.
If newspapers can’t or won’t do the sort of investigations shown in Spotlight, who will? These investigations are very necessary critical examinations of how things work. And in a time of huge economic and social inequality, when we lose that critical perspective, we are losing something very important to our world.