Why Spotlight's Oscar win is a great thing for journalism
By Alicia Shepard
March 1, 2016
|Reporting never looked so...accurately depicted.|
Most people don’t know a journalist. They only know journalists are rated at the bottom of trust polls along with used car salesmen. They only hear presidential candidates trashing reporters daily from the stump.
Spotlight, which just won the Oscar for best picture, allows viewers to peek behind the byline, authentically portraying the tediousness of strong investigative reporting, the fierce determination of reporters, the bravery of top editors and how persistence can bring about real change – as long as management has your back.
That’s why it’s a great thing for journalism that Spotlight won the Oscar for best picture. Highlighting the Boston Globe’s 2002 expose of the Catholic Church’s systemic cover up of priest molestation, Spotlight is this generation’s version of the 1976 movie All the President’s Men.
The win should do wonders for the news business, the public’s understanding of journalism and those of us who believe passionately in journalism’s mission to ultimately inform and do good.
“Mom, I feel like I finally get what you and Dad do now that I’ve seen Spotlight,” said my son, the offspring of two journalists. I’m not alone. Globe Spotlight reporter Sacha Pfeiffer told CNN, “Family members have said to some of us, ‘Oh, now I understand what you do.’”
But will the movie’s success – six Oscar nominations and a passel of other awards – impact the profession as strongly as the All the President’s Men did in the 1970s?
That film, based on the bestselling 1974 book by former Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, details how two junior reporters exposed a massive White House cover-up that led to President Richard Nixon resigning on 9 August 1974.
It inspired a huge spike in enrollment at journalism schools. It led to hundreds of newsrooms setting up investigative teams. It spawned the well-respected Investigative Reporters and Editors group. It dramatically elevated respect for the press. And it ended the days when White House reporters played stenographer to the president’s press secretary.
But that was 40 years ago, in a very different journalism industry.
Today’s ink-stained wretches work in an environment where revelations disappear at the speed of a Twitter feed. The former Boston Globe editor portrayed in Spotlight, Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron, said in a recent talk that he never expected the movie would be made when film-makers first approached him seven years ago. Who would watch it?
Everybody, I hope.
Spotlight can expose to a whole new generation why journalism still matters; why it shouldn’t be dismissed as a sideshow. It painstakingly demonstrates how difficult it is to penetrate a powerful institution such as the Catholic Church – but proves it can be done. It emphasizes how critical and time-consuming investigative reporting is, and why we need to do more – not less – of it.
And Spotlight can show the public an accurate depiction of how reporters and editors actually, really do their jobs, and that most journalists are sincere, hard-working people who make mistakes, miss stories and are just as flawed as any other human beings.
It should go far in boosting the respect most journalists deserve.
In 2002, my colleague Cathy Trost and I wrote a book about the role journalists played in covering the devastating attacks on 11 September 2001. Running Toward Danger: Stories Behind the Breaking News of 9/11 was our attempt to remind the public of journalists’ key, invaluable function in society, and why the knocked-about profession deserves much more respect than it ever gets.
When you first heard a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, what did you do? I know: you turned on the TV, the radio or fired up your computer to get to a news site.
The point is, you depended on journalists to run toward danger, to risk their lives, to inform you when so many Americans were terrified because they didn’t know what was happening.
So go see Spotlight. Educate yourself about what journalists really do. Then thank one. Better yet, get a subscription to a newspaper or news site.