Spotlight! on Big Investigations & Getting Journalism Right
March 24, 2016
I finally saw this year's Oscar-winning Best Picture, Spotlight, all about the Boston Globe's lengthy and airtight investigation into the predator priest scandals that have racked the Catholic Church, and especially the ways in which dioceses were part of a systemic cover up. One leaves the theater reminded of the continuing importance of journalism as a key tool of not only democracy, but the maintenance of human decency. But also of the difficulties involved in the job.
Three things shone through for me and others I know who are in this business. First, the frustrations involved in getting things right when dealing with truly serious stories. Sometimes you have to hold on to smaller pieces of information, and keep working one's material to get at something bigger. Other stories happen which force one to put the story dearest to one's heart on hold. And thirdly, we are all human, and all prone to letting big news connections slip by us because we don't recognize their importance, or can't handle them at certain points in our lives. Yet with work and honesty, they do find the light of day, eventually.
In other words, finding and telling truths is an ongoing process. It takes time.
All of this reminds us of some of the bigger stories that have surfaced around here in recent years, as well as some that need the attention of a full investigative team... or at least enough time and smarts to make them work. And how with each of these stories, there are subjects that look forward, as well as those that if followed overturn our shared pasts. And convoluted presents.
In Spotlight, many of the journalists at the center of the story have a tendency to dismiss some of the squeaky wheels that badger them for coverage. Same happens everywhere. Those with the self-motivation to personally uncover big stories, from Big Tobacco's many wrongs to Love Canal and a whole host of key environmental discoveries of recent years, rarely understand the different levels of vetting needed to publish a solid news story, including the need to run one's information against various sources. Similarly, they don't always utilize the same scientific methodology that works from accumulated evidence, hypotheses, fact-checking, and so on — including "peer" review by numerous experts in a field. They have their conclusions and often work backwards to tighten their arguments.
Which in no way lessens the vital nature of what they're doing.
Here at the Journal, we've come under fire from one such watchdog, Mike Wendel of Napanoch, for not moving fast enough on all the work he's been doing around the city aqueduct buyout program, local health risk patterns, and several other cascading issues. Mike's come under fire from the county, local officials, and state and NYC officials for his feisty arguments. We've worked to unravel the various issues he's working on, the better to get at their veracity. And then figure out the best ways to approach each so clean ups can occur, if necessary, without scaring anyone, or causing undue harm. But this all takes time.
Key among Mike's issues is his belief that there are higher cancer risks in our area based on past practices that he believes are tied to federal programs in the 1940s and 1950s involving deadly radiation. Which he is working to pinpoint through collection of health information from longstanding local residents, to then take to politicians and health officials for further, deeper scientific study. It's a worthy cause.
Yes, talk of Wendel's health registry has become convoluted at times, tied into land values, tax rolls, Homeland Security concerns, personally-owned Geiger counters, various firings at several levels of government, and the dread word "vigilante." But his underlying goal, to ensure our area's health and safety to allow us to move forward, responsible for our own well-being, is nothing but good.
He's been building a website around his beliefs at www.maximumwaters.com, and continues to do endless research. We're trying to help him find partners that will assist his crusade.
But we're also moving alongside his work carefully, based on our own limited resources, and our need to ensure what stories we inevitably print are steel-tight true. And responsible to the community's future.
Otherwise we can't print anything. Because that's OUR job.