Spotlight's Sacha Pfeiffer, Walter Robinson speak with Spectator

By Catie Edmondson And J. Clara Chan
Columbia Spectator
March 28, 2016

Sacha Pfeiffer and Walter "Robby" Robinson of the Boston Globe, most recently portrayed by Rachel McAdams and Michael Keaton, respectively, in the movie Spotlight, stopped by the Spectator office for a Question and Answer session with staff members.

Hailed for its powerful depiction of investigative journalism, the film "Spotlight" tells the story of how the Boston Globe’s investigative team uncovered the continued sexual abuse of children in the Roman Catholic Church.

The team’s coverage of the scandal—a series of 600 articles spanning a period of two years—won them a Pulitzer Prize. But the film, which won the Oscar for best picture this year, served as a high-profile ode to the power of local, investigative reporting at a time when large-scale layoffs in newsrooms have become unsurprising, with expensive investigative teams being the first to go.

At the heart of the story are the journalists and editors on the Spotlight team themselves—among them, Sacha Pfeiffer, currently a columnist and reporter for the Globe and Walter "Robby" Robinson, the Globe’s editor at large. Pfeiffer and Robinson sat down with Spectator on Friday to talk investigative journalism, the importance of outsiders, and whether journalists can really have friends.

On how the Catholic Church investigation changed how they approach reporting:

Robinson said that the experience made him realize that more time needed to be devoted to looking for victimized populations who have been run over by institutions.

“Those are the kinds of stories you don't really need a whistleblower to find—you can just walk out the door literally and just look around you and you find those types of stories,” Robinson said. “I think we're sort of more sensitized after dealing with so many people in the case of the church that had been victimized, more sensitized to the fact that often, journalists are the only voice for the people when they're getting swooped.”

On the future of investigative journalism:

Both Robinson and Pfeiffer said they were not optimistic about the direction investigative journalism was headed, especially in light of the increasing financial restrictions that papers are facing.

Robinson said that readership surveys have indicated that investigative reporting—that which holds those in power accountable for their actions—is valued the most by readers. Despite this, dwindling resources have contributed to the disappearance of coverage by reporters who do accountability reporting, such as by covering city halls and holding mayors and city councils accountable, according to Robinson.

“I don't know of an industry that has been so characterized by misjudgement and just bad decision-making in the last 12 or 15 years as things have turned south,” Robinson said. “The worst job at any paper now is to be an editor. You want to do great journalism and lead a paper to do important work, and you spend half your time cutting staff.”

Pfeiffer said that, ultimately, the financial resources need to be in place in order to support the kind of coverage that is oftentimes the most necessary.

“Marty Baron, when we've spoken publicly about the movie, has mentioned a lot that there are some states that have no reporters covering their state legislature,” Pfeiffer said. “Of all the things that should be covered, it should be your local politicians. Those are dens of corruption sometimes.”

“Investigative reporting is a bit of an endangered species,” Pfeiffer added. “A lot of people I think are inspired by this movie to want to go and be an investigative reporter, and that's great, but I always say that I wish it inspired people to go and buy their newspapers because that's the revenue it takes to fund what we do.”

On knowing when to hit publish:

One of the tensions in the film comes when the Spotlight team pushes editor Marty Baron to let them publish a story in which they detail the abuses committed by a dozen priests in Boston. Instead, Baron convinces the team to continue reporting. “Show me this was systematic, that it came from the top down,” he says in the film.  

“You were always afraid—and there’s a scene near the end where [journalist] Mike Rezendes kind of loses it in the newsroom, and I think in real life the decibel level was not quite that high,” Robinson said. “But he was worried about the Herald, the Herald is going to get this story from us and we’ve been working on it for months.”

“In the film we said, ‘We’ll write a holding story,’ you have a story ready to go in case the competition publishes—I don’t know if we actually ever did one, we talked about it. But we took another six weeks because we needed to,” Robinson said. “And it worked out OK.”

On whether they missed the signs:

Throughout the film, hints are scattered that reporters and editors at the Globe were perhaps as reluctant as other Bostonians to accept the story of abuse, and perhaps could have reported on the story sooner. When asked, Robinson acknowledged that the Globe “missed some clues” and underlined the significance of Baron’s outsider status. Baron came to the Boston Globe after previously working at the Miami Herald and led the Globe’s legal battle to open sealed records that proved pivotal in Spotlight’s story.

“All of the Globe’s editors prior to Marty Baron were homegrown. And like most institutions, pretty much at the Globe we were pretty acculturated to the community that we lived in,” Robinson said. “I think we generally had a deer in the headlights look when he asked, ‘why haven’t we gone after these records?’ And I think the general perception was, ‘well, a judge said we can’t and we’re not going to win that fight.’ Well you know, that really—that turned out not to be the case.”

But Robinson also noted that the issue the Spotlight team’s reporting brought to light—systemic sexual abuse of children by the Catholic Church—wasn’t just hidden in Boston. 

“This was going on in every archdiocese in the country. And every archdiocese had something in common with every other archdiocese—they all had a newspaper within a few miles. So this story, the extent of the cover-up and abuse, was missed by every news organization for we think decades,” Robinson said. “And it’s also the deference to the church that was at play, and we all have expectations for the most morally iconic institution in our society. In Boston that was the Catholic Church.”

On advice for aspiring journalists:

Pfeiffer said that her best advice for aspiring journalists is to take whatever job they can and use it as a “building block.”

“Whatever job you can get will become a building block for the next job. In a way, you don't want to vault right into a big-shot newspaper job because you miss the learning experience of having covered a local community,” Pfeiffer said.

Robinson said that the increasing number of platforms through which news is disseminated has largely been beneficial for the industry.

“You can get as much notice from the Spectator for a good investigative story as if you did it 10 or 15 years for the Boston Globe or the New York Times,” Robinson said. “All you need to do is get the story.”

Both Pfeiffer and Robinson said that despite the downsides of choosing to pursue a career in the industry, it is ultimately one which opens up opportunities to access ends of the world that the average person would not be able to.

“I can't imagine anything else in life that is as much fun and as rewarding and fulfilling as doing good journalism. It sure as hell beats getting into the top 1 percent, I can almost guarantee you that,” Robinson said. “How many of us in life get a chance to stand up for people who have no one else to speak for them?”?



Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.