There’s a strong argument to be made that investigative journalism is a mode of reporting without a true home today. It’s a method that grew up with the rise of the newspaper industry, and subsequently fell as each paper was forced to make cuts. Enter Spotlight in 2015, a movie that shows us firsthand the power of the medium, even in its waning days. Nominated for Best Picture by the Academy, its story is one that practically begs to be told, highlighting the courageous reporters who first uncovered the Catholic Church’s systemic abuse of children.
The first question any movie asks of its audience is “why should you care?” Spotlight‘s answer is more than a little obvious, as it provides us a crash course in the investigative process, why it matters in a modern context, and its power to take on even the most established institutions. As Boston Globe reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (played by Rachel McAdams in the movie) told us, it all began with “a growing, gradual realization.” Before long though, it became one of the biggest stories of the early ’00s.
We thought maybe there were more than one or two bad apple priests, as the Church always claimed it was an isolated problem. Suddenly we realized there were maybe 6 or 7, and suddenly there were maybe a dozen, suddenly it was 20, and eventually we were confident when we published our first story that there were at least 70 priests in the Boston Archdiocese credibly accused of abuse.
All this transpired over a five-month period, condensed into a tidy 2 hours by Spotlight. In the end, it made for a depiction Pfeiffer describes as “remarkably true to real life,” showing us a story that required little in the way of hedging details or over-dramatizing the narrative.
The “what” of the Spotlight story is fascinating by itself. What matters even more though is the “why?” Why after over a decade, is now the time to make this movie? You only have to look at the state of investigative journalism now to understand. “Because newspapers are in such financial peril,” Pfeiffer says, “that means they’re constantly cutting, and one of the first things they’re likely to cut is investigative reporting, because it takes a lot of time and a lot of resources.” It’s not cheap keeping a devoted investigative unit fully staffed, but it’s also equally as important that we find the funds regardless.
I hope that this movie reminds people how important investigative journalism is, and what’s lost if you lose it. If you don’t have someone to question powerful institutions, these are the kind of tragedies that can result.
Spotlight shows us just that too. Imagine a world where the Globe doesn’t fully fund its investigative unit in the early 2000s, leaving the Catholic Church free to continue doling out settlements to victims behind closed doors. Investigative journalism is the backbone to holding those in power accountable for their actions, and without it, we’re left without a true unifying force for change.
That’s not to say there isn’t hope for the future though. Pfeiffer herself notes that it’s merely a question of “whether you have a funding source.” Today, we have sites like ProPublica and The Center for Investigative Reporting carrying the torch, both of which are registered nonprofits. This leaves plenty of room for growth within the Internet medium, and still offers us a solid foundation for keeping investigative journalism alive.
Spotlight is an important movie for a number of reasons. It stands apart from its fellow Best Picture nominees as a true-to-life parable of our need for investigative reporting. It tells a story of systemic abuse that even over a decade after the fact is still relevant. Beyond all that though, it’s an amazingly executed film that highlights our need as a society for the very people it’s about. We need reporters like Pfeiffer and the rest of the Spotlight team more than can be quantified, and more than anything else, that’s the true power of this movie.
Spotlight releases on Blu-Ray, DVD, and Digital HD on February 23, 2016.
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