Reporters, filmmaker shine ‘spotlight’ on investigative journalism

By Joe O'connell
April 6, 2016

The panelist for Tuesday evening's discussion on Spotlight and the future of investigative journalism.
Photo by Matthew Modoono

Walter Robinson, AS’74, right, hands Josh Singer the Academy Award Singer won for writing the screen­play for Spot­light.
Photo by Matthew Modoono

From left, Mike Beaudet, Ros­alind Hel­derman, Josh Singer, Walter Robinson, and Jonathan Kaufman.
Photo by Matthew Modoono

The final scene of the Academy Award-​​winning film Spot­light por­trays the reporters and edi­tors who made up The Boston Globe’s inves­tiga­tive team fielding a bar­rage of calls from sur­vivors of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal on the day in 2002 when the team broke the story.

Walter Robinson, AS’74, a former jour­nalism pro­fessor at North­eastern and a Globe editor who led the Spot­light team, described that day as the end of the begin­ning for his team. Col­lec­tively they wrote some 600 sto­ries on the scandal and earned the Globe the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Ser­vice for their inves­tiga­tive work.

I feel like our world exploded,” Robinson told a standing-​​room only crowd in the event space on the 17th floor of East Vil­lage. “And those phones rang for months. In just the first sev­eral weeks we had more than 300 vic­tims just in the Boston arch­dio­cese call us.”

Robinson shared those mem­o­ries during a thought-​​provoking event on Tuesday evening that exam­ined the making of Spot­light and how the work of those Globe jour­nal­ists con­tinues to impacted inves­tiga­tive journalism.

He was joined by Spot­light screen­writer Josh Singer, who reflected on how he came to write the screen­play and col­lab­o­rated with McCarthy. In Feb­ruary, Spot­light won Academy Awards for Best Pic­ture and Best Orig­inal Screen­play, the latter of which made an appear­ance at Tuesday’s event, which was spon­sored by the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design.

Other speakers included Ros­alind Hel­derman, an inves­tiga­tive reporter with The Wash­ington Post, and Mike Beaudet, a pro­fessor of the prac­tice in Northeastern’s School of Jour­nalism and an inves­tiga­tive reporter for WCVB-​​TV.

Here are six take­aways from Tuesday’s dis­cus­sion, which was mod­er­ated by Jonathan Kaufman, director of Northeastern’s School of Jour­nalism.

•    “For jour­nal­ists, there was cheering in news­rooms when the Oscars were announced,” Robinson said when asked how the movie has impacted jour­nal­ists. “So this is a great shot in the arm, but the ques­tion is how long before it wears off? Will edi­tors start to think more seri­ously about their oblig­a­tion to do reporting that really mat­ters? Time will tell.”

•    “From the very begin­ning, Tom’s vision on this was authen­ticity,” Singer explained, refer­ring to his screen­writing partner and the film’s director Tom McCarthy. “I think he felt because of the sub­ject matter, because of how he felt about jour­nalism, he wanted to cap­ture this in a very authentic way. And he was very much inter­ested in the idea of a team, a cham­pi­onship team, which I think this Spot­light team was.”

•    “Good sto­ry­telling is good sto­ry­telling, but I think we have to deliver it in dif­ferent ways,” Beaudet said, refer­ring to inves­tiga­tive jour­nalism today. “I hope the lessons news man­agers learn (from Spot­light) is you can’t do this by simply saying you are going to cover inves­tiga­tive jour­nalism. You have to be seri­ously com­mitted to it.”

•    “At the Post we are very focused on met­rics,” Hel­derman said. “The number one best way to get a story read by many people is orig­inal, exclu­sive reporting. Telling people some­thing they did not know and that they could not learn any­where else.”

•    “(North­eastern) is ground zero for expe­ri­en­tial learning,” Robinson said. “For me there is no better place to pre­pare for a pro­fes­sional career than North­eastern, and that is par­tic­u­larly true for jour­nalism where our stu­dents, because they are so bright and so moti­vated, and because they love the news so much, and because they have courses that pro­vide them the oppor­tu­nity, are able to do real journalism.”

•    Inves­tiga­tive jour­nalism is not a luxury, Robinson said, “it’s a neces­sity we can’t afford to do without.”


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