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Reporters, filmmaker shine ‘spotlight’ on investigative journalism

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.

Spotlight Event

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

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.

Spotlight Event

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

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.”