In the film Spotlight three stories are told. The first describes the Catholic Church in Boston covering up child sexual abuse. It compounded that cover-up with its failure to remove predatory priests from access to children. The second story is about the investigation. The paper investigates and then publish the story despite resistance by the Church and other actors. The third story, which receives the least attention is the paper’s initial failure to investigate the story effectively. Despite being given specific, concrete, verifiable evidence over a number of years, the story was only investigated superficially.
The story is the lead actor
The public, rightly, focus on the second story. It is the film’s main story which the director tells with extraordinary deftness, pacing, and intelligence. The dialogue provides a subtle analysis of the tension within the newsroom as well as between the newspaper and the Church. The actors give a master class as each one brings the characters to life in their full complexity. Each actor understand that the story is the lead actor. The reporters, editors, and publisher took great personal and professional risks to bring the story to press. What the movie reveals is that they had to face the real threat they would alienate their own community by exposing a central institution, a central cultural touchstone, as corrupt for its failure to protect children from abuse. For many reporters and editors, the story meant they had to risk their personal and professional relationships, with people they grew up with who they considered close if not intimate friends, so that they could tell the truth about what had happened.
When papers investigate superficially, who do they serve?
The third story is one the public do not see directly. The writers and the director cover the paper’s initial failure to investigate the story effectively. The movie refers to it just before it concludes which gives the appearance it is addressed. The issue, though, is an All the President’s Men in reverse—why did the reporters, editors, and publisher fail to pursue the first story? The paper’s failure meant that the cover-up continued.
What is the deeper story?
When the press fails to investigate or investigate superficially they contribute to the cover-up. In the UK, we can see the same process at work. We see superficial coverage of child sexual abuse by powerful or prominent figures. They may investigate the claims and even publish stories. Yet, like in the film, it would seem this is a way to avoid a greater, intensive, focus. In the film, the stories are buried in the Metro section to avoid undue attention, yet prove the paper has covered the issue. The approach may salve the journalistic soul; does it serve the public interest? How often has this happened in the UK media? The focus on lurid details often confuses or dilutes the public interest. As a result, the abuse of power by prominent or privileged public figures escapes notice.
Who do the press serve when they dilute the public interest? Who will turn the Spotlight on the UK media?