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More Than Just a Love Letter to Journalism

Tom McCarthy’s acclaimed new film, Spotlight, has a lot to teach us about putting more resources toward long-term research, both inside and outside of the newsroom.
Spotlight. (Photo: Open Road Films)

Spotlight. (Photo: Open Road Films)

The many critics who have named director Tom McCarthy's recent film Spotlight one of the best films of 2015 have singled out its decidedly pre-digital version of newspaper culture. But Spotlight is not just a love letter to journalism before clickbait, viral videos, and ever contracting news cycles. It is also an ode to research.

The film focuses on Spotlight, a special team of investigative journalists at the Boston Globe who, over many months in 2001, investigate Catholic priests who have sex with minors and then broaden their inquiry to include church leaders who protect them from prosecution. The conditions under which the Spotlight team works are so unique that its editor, Robbie Robinson (Michael Keaton), has to spend an entire meal explaining—and defending—them to his new boss, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Spotlight members pick their own projects, keep their work confidential, and can take up to a year to research possible subjects worthy of investigation.

In theory, everyone is all for this kind of deep research, but in practice it gets a bad rap. When was the last time you heard anyone praise a doctoral student for how much time she devoted to her dissertation? Literature's most famous scholars—from Goethe's Faust to George Eliot's Casaubon to Nabokov's Pnin—are failures and crackpots. Journalists don't fare much better, exposed in novels by Guy de Maupassant, Tom Wolfe, and Amy Waldman as shallow, manipulative opportunists. Films tend to portray great thinkers as tragic geniuses driven to madness and self-destruction (think A Beautiful Mind and The Imitation Game) and reporters who pursue the same story for years as paranoids who fritter their lives away on inconclusive quests (think Zodiac). Even the film version of All the President's Men is less about painstaking research than about Woodward and Bernstein's relationship to the sources they eventually convince to break their code of silence.

Few scholars have the reach and impact of journalists, and few journalists have the autonomy and time afforded to scholars, but both face a world that questions the value of what they do.

In Spotlight, by contrast, obsessive, time-consuming research turns out to be the royal road to truth, helping to identify patterns that quicker, less resource-intensive methods never could. As the team's four reporters work to establish the scope of the abuse story, they become historians trolling through their own paper's archives, wading through microfilm, cartloads of clippings, and primary documents neglected by others. These include church directories located in the newspaper's basement library—a place that other staff members visit so rarely that a dead rodent can rot there for weeks undetected.

Spotlight succeeds in making research as suspenseful as a detective tale in which the process of tracking down information becomes as engaging as the information itself. As in any good mystery, we feel our minds racing as what initially seems like a welter of inchoate data starts to coalesce into clues. When the reporters descend into the basement to look for the church directories, the tension is almost as strong as when Vera Miles ventures into the cellar in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. The camerawork invests research with thrilling energy as tracking shots follow cartloads of files, a reporter works until closing time in the Boston Public Library, and the camera cuts between fingers sliding down columns of print in old files and data being entered into spreadsheets.

Even with all the considerable resources that the Spotlight team brings to their task, however, they still rely heavily on a specialized expert, Richard Sipe, who has spent 30 years researching the topic of Catholic clergymen who have sex with minors. As reporter Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) says of Sipe's decades of specialized research, "His knowledge of this is on a whole other level." Sipe's character is easy to overlook because he never appears in person, but he shares his expertise by phone with the Spotlight team in four separate scenes.

The film's narrative arc affirms the predictive power of Sipe's deeply researched findings. The Spotlight team begins its investigation with a single priest who is about to be arraigned on several charges of abuse, and its members are not only surprised but skeptical when a victim's advocate tells them of 13 repeat offenders. When Sipe tells them he would expect 90 out of 1,500 Boston priests to have had sex with minors, the reporters are stunned. Yet that number turns out to be almost exactly on target, as the reporters learn when they shift from tracing the names of known abusers whom the Church has put on various kinds of leave to searching for the terms used to designate the leaves. After combing through old directories, they have identified 87 likely perpetrators, a number that almost exactly confirms Sipe's finding that about six percent of priests have sex with minors.

In contrast to the myths that present the pursuit of truth as a solitary act and a feat of perfect objectivity, Spotlight presents its reporters as collaborative, receptive, and personally connected to their material.

Collaborative: We learn that one team member, working on his own, passed up several earlier opportunities to uncover the story that only Spotlight's teamwork can successfully pursue.

Receptive: In many scenes, we see the reporters listen supportively to those abused as teenagers, their pained facial expressions showing that they are not simply verifying and recording the survivors' statements but are also bearing witness to their pain.

Personally connected: The film shows that good journalists, like all good researchers, need to be willing to challenge authority, to question received wisdom, and, most importantly, to question themselves. But rather than celebrate neutrality and distance, the film suggests that research at its best is not purely objective but often benefits from an involved standpoint. The leader of the survivors' group, whom Robinson initially dismisses as having "an agenda," turns out to be right not despite but because of his personal experience. Even the cantankerous lawyer who has handled over 80 suits by victims has a clearly emotional investment in challenging the church hierarchy that by concealing abuse allowed it to continue.

Repeatedly, the film reminds us that the reporters themselves have a personal, emotional stake in the story they research. All are former Catholics with a local knowledge of Boston so deep that Rezendes can bond with one survivor by identifying the particular Stop & Shop near his childhood home. One Spotlight team member tells another survivor that her mother is a Southie. "So you get it," he replies. Robinson learns that a priest at his own high school abused boys on the hockey team. Rezendes expresses his identification with the victims when he yells at his boss: "It could have been you, it could have been me, it could have been any of us."

Few scholars today have the reach and impact of journalists, and few journalists have the autonomy and time afforded to scholars, but both journalists and scholars face a world that questions the value of what they do. At a moment when many demand quick results, glorify multitasking, and accept short attention spans and compressed news cycles as inevitable, it is heartening to see Spotlight celebrate the single-minded focus, deliberate pace, and long-term investment of resources that make good research possible.