‘Spotlight’ highlights the role of investigative journalism

On Saturday, Dec. 19, The Martha’s Vineyard Times, the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society, and the Harbor View Hotel will sponsor a special screening of the film and talk featuring Globe investigative reporter Todd Wallack.

The cast of "Spotlight."

On Saturday, Dec. 19 at 7 pm, The Martha’s Vineyard Times, the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society, and the Harbor View Hotel will sponsor “Spotlight on Journalism,” a special screening of the film “Spotlight” and talk featuring Globe investigative reporter Todd Wallack. In recognition of the journalism the acclaimed film highlights, The MVTimes will provide free admission to any high school or college student (student ID required) that evening.Following the early screening (7 pm film start time), Mr. Wallack will speak about how the Spotlight team works and investigative journalism.

The just-released film “Spotlight” describes the dogged reporting that exposed a decades-long cover-up by the Roman Catholic Church of sexual predators among its clergy in the archdiocese of Boston. The film focuses on the work of the Boston Globe’s investigative Spotlight team to bring the story to the public eye in 2002. The story details the tedious legwork and information-gathering by the four team reporters, under the guidance of their editor, that revealed how church officials kept predators in the shadows, and the dramatic and confrontational scenes with Boston archdiocese officials as the team worked to document its reporting.

The Spotlight team won a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2003 for the year long string of stories based on a reporting effort that began in 2001.

The film from distributor Open Road Films serves also to underpin the renewed national interest in investigative journalism as a tool to force transparency in government, business, and social institutions, which has led to the development of dozens of relatively new investigative units during a period of downsized newsrooms, as well as an explosion in news and information, much of dubious quality, flooding the Internet.

In an interview with The Times, three seasoned journalism professionals, Todd Wallack, a member of the Globe Spotlight team; author and seasonal Island resident Dick Lehr, a journalism professor at Boston University and a former Spotlight Team reporter; and Joe Bergantino, director of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, spoke about the role and significance of the investigative reporting the film highlights.

“Spotlight” is doing big box office, opening last month in the top 10 grossing films for its first week. All three journalists said there is a strong national thirst, supported by national polls, for the work of investigative reporters compared with instant news sloppily generated by get-it-first/correct-it-later websites and social media.

Polls reveal that investigative journalism still draws significant readers, even against the appeal of entertainment stories with little substance.

“People have a broad appetite for both pizza and fine dining,” Mr. Wallack said. “Spotlight stories are one of the best-read news columns on our website. The Globe website exploded when our story on doctors double-booking operations ran recently. Readers spent enormous amounts of time reading some very long stories, and provided a lot of feedback. People thank us for our work.”

Mr. Wallack, who specializes in data journalism, public records, and financial reporting, said the appetite is there, but the resources are limited.

“The challenge, I believe, isn’t lack of interest, but that investigative reporting is expensive and time-consuming,” Mr. Wallack said. “Many stories take a year to complete.”

He noted that a recent meeting of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) drew more than 1,800 journalists, a record number, to its investigative reporting sessions.

“I worry less about I-teams than about the disappearance of day-to-day reporting,” he said. “There are fewer reporters covering cities and towns across the country. And they have to write for the web, and post video and pictures. Fewer reporters, and they are stretched, so there is less coverage.”

With respect to public records, a topic Mr. Wallack has reported on in depth, he noted that this year the Massachusetts State Police received IRE’s annual tongue-in-cheek Golden Padlock Award, which recognizes the most secretive publicly funded agency or person in the United States.

Dick Lehr, co-author of “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob,” said there has been a proliferation of news outlets, particularly on the Internet, which he described as “a vast place with a lot of noise in it.”

Mr. Lehr said he is concerned about stories labeled as investigative pieces that are not the result of enterprise reporting, which is original work based on solid reporting and not a press release. “Building a story around a Labor Department report a day before its release and labeling it as investigative reporting is misleading,” Mr. Lehr said.

He said that hard-news reporting faces a challenge from the erosion of accessibility to public documents. Reporters find that requests made through federal Freedom of Information (FOI) statutes and the Massachusetts Public Records law are often not enough to pry free public information or penetrate the layers of public relations staff standing between reporters and accountable decision-makers.

“They are committed to keeping us away. Reporters have to push, get around somehow, surmount the obstacles,” he said.

There is an upside to the Internet, and a grassroots nature to investigative work, Mr. Lehr said: “There is a guy in Massachusetts who has made himself an expert at handling FOIs. Works out of his home. I understand a lot of reporters go to him for help.”

Joe Bergantino has had a bird’s-eye view of the growth in investigative reporting organizations over the past decade. Mr. Bergantino spent 22 years as an investigative reporter with Boston’s Channel 4 television station before he co-founded the New England Center for Investigative Reporting nearly eight years ago.

Following a decline in mainstream media operations, the impetus for creating investigative reporting organizations has come from journalists, Mr. Bergantino said.

“In our case, we felt strongly about investigative journalism and wanted to create something that could survive and flourish,” he said. “I believe the nonprofit financial model is the successful way in the future.”

NECIR now has a staff of nine, including four reporters, and supplies dozen of outlets from Al Jazeera to the Huffington Post, and produces stories run by regional, local, and national newspapers.

“Polling shows that people really want this,” he said. “They are looking for something to separate fact from fiction. Certainly there is appetite for scandal. That goes back to the early 20th century. Some people want that, but the great thing about the Internet is that there is endless space with which to work.

“Certainly a lot of things are wrong in the media landscape. The rush to publish without vetting the facts, for example. That’s been happening for a long time. There is a perspective that if you get it wrong, you’ll correct it later. The consumer has to manage through that.

“But that approach has nothing to do with investigative reporting which takes months, sometimes years, to produce a story correctly.”