Being a journalist can be a lonely, discouraging and thankless profession. People are suspicious of you and your motives. They don’t want to talk to you. They don’t want to be quoted. Or they want free publicity, and negotiating that can be tough.
That’s a lot of negativity coming at you, day after day, as you make phone calls and try to dig up information that is essential to you doing your job successfully. I think I was in this kind of a discouraged mood a year or so ago when I watched the movie Spotlight. It is an Oscar-winning film that tells the tale of the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning revelation of widespread, systemic sexual abuse of minors but priests from the Catholic Church in Boston. Over 1,000 victims eventually came forward and 249 priests were implicated. This story lead to a global falling away of the norms and taboos that protect the church: similar cover-ups were discovered across the world.
The sheer dedication, motivation and drive of the reporters in the story, who were lead by editor Walter Robinson, was inspiring. Not to mention the small measure of justice that was earned for the victims (if there can ever be justice for victims of sexual abuse). I was in tears at the end of the movie, resolved to forge ahead as an investigative journalist.
This past Friday, I received a further injection of inspiration as Walter Robinson himself was visiting Kingston. He was hosted by Global Reporters for the Caribbean and the U.S. Embassy. There were two screenings of the movie Spotlight, and after the second on Friday, I had the privilege of engaging in a Q&A session with Mr. Robinson. He is a lovely man, warm and generous, but there is a sadness surrounding him. I suspect it has to do, in part, with what he has seen as a reporter. In fact, he alluded to this during his comments, when he said that he has seen some of the worst things one can expect to see in over forty years as a reporter. He has covered wars, as well as heard the horrific tales of sexual abuse from countless victims.
I was not able to take notes as I was conducting the interview, but I will paraphrase some of what he said.
- This story of sexual abuse was so challenging to do because the details of the cases were so difficult to confront. In addition, it involves an institution no one would have thought capable of enabling these types of crimes.
- Some people accused him of being biased towards the victims. “There is only one side to empathize with,” he would respond, and that is, of course, the victim. In fact, one of his high school friends was a victim, and upon hearing his story, Mr. Robinson broke down and cried with him.
- The film itself is multi-layered, telling both the story of the actual journalism, as well as the stories of the victims.
- It compress five-and-a-half months of work into two hours, and that was the only way to make it exciting. The team was comprised of four people who, towards the end, worked seven days a week.
- Mr. Robinson was editor at the time that the first story of a priest abusing 20 victims ran many years prior, but he does not remember it running as he thinks he was on vacation. He pointed out that newspapers around the world missed this story for years.
- The concept of a widespread coverup by such an institution was “almost unbelievable to consider something like this was going on.” Despite the story doing major damage to the Church’s reputation, people did not direct their anger to the Boston Globe, and this is a town whose culture is dominated by the Church. In fact, they were angry at the church for putting their children in danger.
- In total, 10.75 per cent of priests abused children in Boston.
- Investigative journalism is slow and expensive, but when you get it right, you can’t argue in any way with solidly reported, verified stories that expose the truth.
- Despite its reputation, journalism can be fun and it can change the world for the better.
For a journalist, this was a privilege and an honor, as well as a learning experience. Thank you Mr. Robinson for your service and your wisdom.