Commitment, sacrifice, passion and patience are the things that make an investigative journalist . . . of which there are fewer and fewer.

 

Sharing the stage at this year’s Academy Awards besides winner Leonardo DiCaprio, was Spotlight. A film all about great investigative journalism that expresses a kind of virtue that is slowly fading away. It is easily comparable to a classic such as, All the President’s Men by Alan Pakula.

Spotlight brought to the big screen the Boston Globe’s journalistic investigation, which in 2002 exposed one of the most oppressing scandals in the modern history of the church, revealing thousands of child sexual abuses committed by paedophile priests of the Boston diocese. It is a movie with a strong social and political message about an American newspaper which revealed horrendous crimes concealed by the Catholic Church.

Putting aside the disturbing nature of the plot and the shocking scandal itself, this film tries to send another fundamental message. It invites the viewers to reflect on the importance of investigative journalism, the kind of quality journalism that isn’t afraid to sniff out society’s danger zones. It is the journalism of denunciation, that does not stop at press releases and official announcements, but digs in deep into the contents in order to be of help to the collective. It is the kind of reporting that carries the epithet of ‘watchdog of democracy’, because it seeks to survey those in power and give a voice to those who are kept silent. Such journalists uncover political and economic blemishes in order to make them right.

The passion of the actors, the director, the screenwriter and the producers made it possible for the film to be truthful and sincere. Although the depositions of the victims reveal the disquieting tragedy of the abuses, the film’s sequence of events does not dwell on the crimes themselves but on the teamwork put into the investigation.

The investigative tools used by the team are also quite extraordinary: interviews with the victims and the lawyers, and hours spent reading and analysing open sources, such as the annual reports of the Catholic Church. It is hard to believe that the most important information was held in these dusty tomes, permitting the discovery that ninety priests were either transferred to other dioceses or put on sick leave. This type of journalism requires sleepless nights and a passion for the truth.

Spotlight is great filmmaking that pays homage to great journalism. It shows the particulars of a thorny and tangled story that grows until it becomes enmeshed in a system, consisting of lawyers, victims, cardinals, journalists, tribunals and normal people. This type of reporting is all about the journalist as narrator and began at a time when Martin Baron joined the Boston Globe as Editor.

Baron, now Editor of the Washington Post, wrote: ‘The rewards will come if this movie has impact: On journalism, because owners, publishers and editors rededicate themselves to investigative reporting. On a sceptical public, because citizens come to recognize the necessity of vigorous local coverage and strong journalistic institutions. And on all of us, through a greater willingness to listen to the powerless and too-often voiceless, including those who have suffered sexual and other abuse’.

There will always be a need for journalists who refuse to copy-paste from press releases, but instead seek to find new stories and unexplored ways of telling them. It is an incredible job, but it requires time and commitment: an investigation might require several months. It is a journalism that has no deadlines and no guarantees of success — it may discover truths or it may not.

Nowadays, who would want to take on the responsibility of financing this type of work? The few investigative journalists out in the field should be helped and promoted by their employers, but the sad truth is, twenty-first-century journalism has become synonymous with light politics, gossip and small talk.