Nieman Journalism Lab
By Joshua Benton / Sept. 23
NYU professor and Internet thinker Clay Shirky gave a talk Tuesday at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, our friends just on the other side of Harvard Square. His subject was the future of accountability journalism in a world of declining newspapers. Even for those of us familiar with his ideas, he brought in a few new wrinkles, which have already been the subject of commentary around the web. ...
Clay Shirky: Let me start with a story that I think will encapsulate a bunch of these issues as I go on. Back from January of 2002, when the Boston Globe published a two-part series on the upcoming trial of Father John Geoghan, who was a priest and pedophile who had been employed by the Catholic Church since the 1960s. Three Globe reporters had been working on this story and they had gotten hold of the documents the church had been forced to submit in the upcoming trial. Turned out that Geoghan had raped or fondled over 100 boys in his care, and was able to do this in diocese after diocese because every time the accusations would start, the Catholic Church would take him off to rehabilitation, which was ineffective, then assign him to a new diocese, and he went and moved through several parishes in the area.
The reaction to this story as you can imagine was instant and horrified shock on the part of the Catholic laity. Story went worldwide. So many people read it that The New York Times company, the parent company of The Boston Globe, mentioned that story in their investors relations document at the end of that quarter because the size and global scope of the audience was literally unprecedented in the Times Co.’s history. Any organization set up to deal with issues of priestly abuse got an enormous — got wind in their sales from this article. SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, grew by a factor of three in a single year after its 10-year history. Voice of the Faithful, an organization that was centered originally in the Boston area, went from 30 people in a church basement that January concerned about what to do, to 25,000 members in 21 countries in 6 months. The Bishop Accountability Project, which set up a database to prevent the “this is a rare occasion that doesn’t happen elsewhere” kinds of excuses from taking hold, added that article and then used those documents to expand their observations to elsewhere.
There is an unbroken line from that article — there is an unbroken line from the Globe’s publication of that article to the worldwide pressure of the Catholic Church is now under, to both account for its past and alter its behavior in the future. Which, by way of introduction, makes it clear what’s at stake with what Professor Jones calls accountability journalism. This is a classic example of, again quoting from Losing the News, of the iron core of journalism and in particular the investigative journalism category, where three reporters are dispatched for a long period on a story that may or may not pan out.