Spotlight won this year’s Academy Award for Best Picture, but the story portrayed is slipping slowly into the fiction category. The sort of investigative journalism dramatized in the film is disappearing.
Michael Keaton plays a newspaper editor in charge of the investigative journalism unit at the Boston Globe in 2001. When they uncover a child-abuse scandal inside the Catholic Church, each reporter wrestles with how the revelations will affect their lives and neighborhoods.
Will a devout grandmother be crestfallen? Will the city’s country club connections turn against the newspaper? Should neighborhood kids be warned about a nearby safe house for defrocked priests? Are these the reasons that stories like this one are so seldom told? The devil is in the details, and the details of investigative journalism are almost always local.
The Register-Guard did important legwork last year when Eugene was awarded the IAAF’s 2021 World Athletics Championships. Bringing an international track meet of this stature to Eugene was a huge accomplishment. Local editors wanted to know how it happened, who talked to whom, what promises were made.
Every reporter digs with a similar set of shovels, but some know the ground better than others. The emails uncovered by The Register-Guard’s inquiry attracted attention from the BBC, London Times, Wall Street Journal and eventually a team of French prosecutors.
Investigative journalism doesn’t have to turn over every rock to prevent things from being hidden there. The risk of being found out is often reason enough to not misbehave. “Don’t say it out loud,” the reminder went, “if you don’t want to read it on Page One of the newspaper.”
That watchdog role is expensive for a hometown newspaper. “Spotlight” depicts four reporters chasing a single story for months. That’s a huge investment, but it has always come with the territory. Editors and publishers have told their reporters for generations, “Follow the story wherever it leads.”
We’ve relied on that sort of dogged journalism without knowing it. Our consumer habits subsidized their professional curiosity. Grocers, merchants, and neighbors paid for advertising to sell their wares. Weekly sales were noted, coupons were clipped, used cars were bought and sold. Newspapers then used those earnings to pay reporters to snoop around on our behalf.
We counted on the paper to “show up” at meetings that few citizens had time or interest to attend. If something interesting happened there, the newspaper would report it. As if unchanged from the town criers of colonial times, we’d then read all about it, as if we’d been there. And then we would all talk about it with our friends and neighbors.
We’re tinkering with that formula now, and none of us knows how it will turn out. Newspapers rarely can afford a reporter pursuing a story for months. Daily newspapers no longer control the daily narrative of people’s lives. Reading the newspaper is now considered optional, since so many other news sources are freely available.
When people have so many choices for the information they collect, they naturally gravitate toward sources that they trust and voices that make them comfortable. Each of us can now assemble our own echo chamber of familiar and self-affirming stories. Uncomfortable news has never been easier to overlook.
Newspapers’ public advocacy has increasingly been reduced to fact-checking, score cards, and other easily repeated bits. Emerging models for investigative journalism often lack the local connection that drives a daily newspaper. They still dig for dirt, but on unfamiliar ground.
Who will model engaged citizenship for the next generation? Who will show up at meetings that probably won’t matter — until they do? Who will tell Virginia that yes, there is a Santa Claus? Maybe it will still be the daily newspaper, but differently. We just don’t know, because the movie that we’re living in hasn’t ended yet.
We’re hoping our citizenry can stay well-informed without a unifying source of information — the newspaper of record. Maybe democracy can thrive without a well-informed citizenry at all.
There’s nothing that says our society can’t function differently than it always has. It might even be better. Pass the popcorn, and let’s hope so.