How to Get Journalism Right, Via the Movies

Spotlight is a lesson in how to be a reporter; Truth is a lesson in how not to.

Kerry Hayes / Open Road Films

And with that, the karmic balance is restored. Three weeks ago marked the release of Truth, one of the worst movies about journalism I’ve ever seen. This week, in contrast, brings the national opening of Spotlight, one of the best. (It is also one of the best films of the year. You can read David Sims’s review here.)

Truth told the story of the 60 Minutes crew that in 2004 broadcast allegations regarding George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard that were quickly discredited. Spotlight describes the 2001 reporting by an investigative team at The Boston Globe that cracked the Catholic priest abuse scandal wide open. Both are essentially structured as narratives of heroic journalism—the latter, accurately; the former, insanely.

The anti-parallels between the films are so acute that it almost seems as though the two could have been conceived as a package deal—say, as paired examples of don’t and do for use in a J-School seminar. Truth celebrated reporters who got their story—or at least significant elements of it—wrong. Spotlight celebrates reporters who got their story right. The former’s scoop (in addition to its inaccuracy) was incremental and a second-tier scandal at best. The latter’s scoop was shocking, revelatory, and far-reaching in its consequences. 60 Minutes rushed its story onto the airwaves to meet a set air date. The Globe resisted publishing until they had tracked down every lead, despite the risk that they might be scooped by the Boston Herald.

But beyond these particulars, what is perhaps most striking about Spotlight and Truth are the differing attitudes displayed by their journalistic protagonists. As the 60 Minutes team sees their story unraveling, they cling ever more tightly to it. Despite the movie’s Always Ask Questions mantra, the reporters never ask themselves whether they might have simply gotten it wrong. When they finally offer a correction, it’s treated as a betrayal of principle rather than the fulfillment of one, a capitulation to power rather than a capitulation to the facts and a duty to their audience. They remain self-righteous and defiant to the end.

In Spotlight, by contrast, the Globe crew is riddled with regret even after they’ve nailed one of the most important—and labor-intensive—investigative stories of the decade. Why didn’t they get to the story earlier, they ask themselves. How could they have missed something that was, to a considerable degree, hiding in plain sight? As the head of the investigative team, Walter “Robbie” Robinson (Michael Keaton), asks himself: “What about us? We had all the pieces. Why didn’t we get it sooner?”

The contrast is extraordinary: one news team that expresses no remorse at all for having dramatically botched a story; another that is filled with remorse that their groundbreaking, immaculately reported story wasn’t written years earlier. One movie offers a vision of journalism as antagonistic, obstinate, and obsessive, the other a vision that is open-minded, self-critical, and humble. And while the former traits certainly have their place within the field—and are in some cases essential—they are dangerous if not tempered by the latter.

The Globe wasn’t alone in missing the priest scandal, after all. The extent of the abuse in and around Boston may have been unique, but related scandals unfolded in cities across the nation—and, to some degree, the globe. I am reminded, not at all happily, of an episode that took place during my stint as a deputy national editor at The Washington Post in 2000. A middle-aged man, obviously suffering from mental illness, showed up at the paper one day in the hope that we would run a piece about his abuse at the hands of a priest decades earlier. The details of his story were vague and at times contradictory. I suggested he go to the police—which, of course, he had already done, to no effect. I hooked him up with a reporter, and I think someone got him some immediate assistance. But I don’t believe anyone at The Post ever really followed up on his story. In all honesty, I’m not sure what we might plausibly have done differently. But that didn’t make me feel any less awful when the Globe’s revelations broke.

It’s not a phenomenon limited to people in the media, of course. Anyone who has lived in Washington, D.C. for any amount of time is familiar with John Wojnowski, who has stood witness in front of the Vatican embassy on Massachusetts Avenue while holding up signs—“Vatican Hides Pedophiles,” “Catholics Cowards,” etc.—almost every day for 17 years. I know I am not alone in viewing him quite differently after 2002 than I had before then. Motorists used to jeer at him and give him the finger; now, they tend to honk or wave in support.

Perhaps this is why Spotlight’s moral of humility is so powerful. There are so many things that we don’t know, so many assumptions that we don’t recognize as such, so many questions that we haven’t even thought to ask. Spotlight cautions us that we almost never know the whole story, if such a thing is even possible. It’s a worthy reminder, and not only for journalists.