COLUMN: Investigative journalism in the Spotlight
By Don Kausler Jr.
March 27, 2016
When an editor’s battery is running low, words from Pulitzer Prize winners are a great way to recharge. In a recent four-day period involving two trips to Columbia, anecdotes from journalists that won three prizes were perfect antidotes.
At a program during the S.C. Press Association’s annual meetings, a threesome from the Post and Courier in Charleston shared inside stories of “Till Death Do Us Part,” an in-depth look at South Carolina’s domestic violence problem. That preceded an entertaining talk by 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning political columnist Kathleen Parker.
But the highlight was a talk at the University of South Carolina journalism school by Walter Robinson.
Who? He’s better known as “Robby” Robinson.
Who? Michael Keaton portrayed him in “Spotlight,” the Oscar-winning movie about The Boston Globe’s 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning series about child sex abuse by Catholic priests in the Boston area.
Robinson was the leader of the four-person team that exposed the abuse and the church’s cover-up. His inspirational speech spotlighted the movie and investigative reporting.
He seems amazed about the movie’s success.
“We are, after all, talking about a relatively low-budget indie film,” he said. “It has no car chases, no shootings, no explosions. There is not even a bare midriff.”
The investigation took 18 months. The movie focused on the first five months, which led up to the first blockbuster story. That led to 600 articles in 2002 alone.
If you have not yet seen the movie that won the Academy Award for best picture, see it. It is my new favorite movie.
“The film is about real-life investigative reporting that happened to make a difference – a big difference,” Robinson said in a packed auditorium. “Alas, it is that kind of investigative reporting that is not being done at most newspapers anymore – a casualty of the precipitous drop in revenue that has beset pretty much every news organization.”
Keaton is “among my BFFs,” Robinson said. George Clooney and Matt Damon almost had starring roles.
“The film was a tough sell in Hollywood,” Robinson said. “The best film of the year almost didn’t get made. Tough subject matter, popular new pope, to cite just two barriers.”
A Hollywood script consultant wanted to spice the storyline up with a sexual or romantic affair, but the director rejected it.
“The filmmakers were so intent on getting the little details right that there is a framed photo of my real daughter on the fake Walter Robinson’s desk,” Robinson said. “That desk is in an exact replica of the Spotlight team’s office that was built so we couldn’t recognize the difference in a rented, vacant Sears warehouse in Toronto.”
For the scenes that were shot in the fake newsroom, sound editors dubbed in ambient noise from the real Globe newsroom. Some dialogue is based on 2001 emails that Robinson saved and shared. Some characters are composites, such as the lawyer portrayed by actor Jamey Sheridan.
Robinson marvels at how the film made investigative reporting seem exciting.
“If you saw the real reporting up close, you wouldn’t be on the edge of your seat,” he said. “You’d be sound asleep in your seat. … Good investigative stories are riveting to read, but the work that goes into them is often boring, monotonous, tedious, stupefying, mind-numbing, sleep-inducing, even constipating.”
One reason journalists like the film, Robinson said, “is because it feels authentic to them: Clueless reporters stumbling around in the dark, trying to figure out if there is a story, then trying to determine its dimensions, then being dumbstruck to learn the story is much different and much bigger than they could have imagined.”
Robinson then switched gears to talk about investigative journalism.
“Is it possible nowadays to do this kind of investigation?” he asked. “My answer to that is yes, of course it is. In fact, many investigations nowadays can be done faster. Reporting that used to take months can now sometimes take days.”
But Robinson cautioned about relying too much on technology and emphasized that he and his team were able to persuade reticent people to talk through face-to-face meetings.
“If we had adopted 21st-century techniques – email, texts, tweets, maybe something real personal like a phone call – we might still be waiting for people to cooperate,” he said. “The best stories do not come to you. You have to go to them.”
Now an editor at large at The Globe, Robinson taught journalism at Northeastern University from 2007 to 2014. He had a message for his students and shared that message with USC students.
“Stick with journalism,” he said. “There’s nothing in life more fun, more rewarding than digging for the truth and finding stories that the people in power don’t want us to do. Journalism is a life worth living. It is, I believe, infinitely more fulfilling than making it into the top 1 percent.”
If a journalist gets lucky, his or her work could be immortalized in a movie, Robinson said. But then viewers might confuse the difference between life and art. He shared a story about a woman who called him last fall from Los Angeles to ask him to do a story about a religious cult.
“She was articulate,” Robinson said. “She sounded credible. She said she had documents. So I said, ‘You’re in California; I’m in Boston. Why would you call us?’ Her response? ‘Because I watched a trailer for ‘Spotlight’ this morning, and I decided you were the reporter who should do this story.’
“I probably should have given her Keaton’s cell number.”