‘Spotlight’ and the Argument for Investigative Journalism

Spotlight, 2015’s front-running film, details every step of journalism’s investigative process. You see Brian d’Arcy James scanning through records long before big data was all the rage. Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams go door-to-door for information, slowly winning the trust of a few subjects who are willing to talk.

It’s a painful exercise to watch—sometimes tedious, often times emotionally draining—and it’s nothing like the big, bad journalism movies of the 20th century. We’re not following Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as they dashingly expose Nixon’s corruption. We’re not allowed the romanticism of fancy ’40s films like Citizen Kane or His Girl Friday. We don’t even immerse ourselves in the thrilling drama of Absence of Malice, or the lustful environs of The Devil Wears Prada and Sex and the City. 

Instead, Spotlight is about a newsroom that looks like a newsroom and acts like a newsroom. It’s about four reporters who together expose a system of abuse and crime.

Spotlight is now the talk of the town. Last week, it won Best Feature and Best Screenplay at the Gotham Independent Film Awards, and most fans of the silver screen have it on their bracket for an Oscar.

What makes it so effective is that it communicates the urgency of the fourth estate without diluting it with glamour or Hollywood sensationalism.

When viewers walk out of the theater, they are convinced that the public service the Boston Globe provided was absolutely necessary, that they need watchdogs monitoring the prevalent institutions of the 21st century. Whether big business, the government or Church, establishments have power, and a few people wield a lot of authority. Without someone holding them accountable, it’s easy for atrocities to happen and justice to sit just out of reach.



For those who haven’t seen Spotlight yet: the plot covers an investigative journalism team at the Boston Globe that’s devoted to long-term projects.  In 2002, Spotlight published a tell-all on the Boston Archdiocese that highlighted an extensive legacy of priests committing child abuse and the Church covering it up. They popularized a personal, controversial scandal, saving young Catholics around the world from violation and trauma.

Indeed, investigative journalism has been one of the most important devices for effecting change throughout history. Of course, it’s difficult to measure impact, but Nellie Bly infiltrated a women’s asylum and wrote about the awful health conditions; soon, the government reformed their facilities. E.D. Morel exposed the slave-like conditions on rubber plantations in the Congo, and King Leopold II was forced to step down from his post. Even the Civil Rights Movement relied on journalists to spread the word. They showed the nation racism and the nation showed them solidarity.

The 2002 scandal is one of many examples of investigative journalism’s influence on sociopolitical change. But a 2010 study reported that only two percent of media development funding is going toward investigative reporting. Two percent. Meanwhile, apps and startups are grabbing grants wherever they can for another banal project that will probably fail in the first few years. And what’s trending on Facebook? Kylie Jenner and Jennifer Lawrence. Celebrity gossip is more en vogue than ever, as are reblogs and listacles with little-to-no substance.

The public sphere is in desperate need of quality, well-financed investigative journalism. Sure, funding is a dicey subject—leading media sponsors, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation may have an agenda, and journalism is supposed to be fair, if not objective. Still, investigative journalism is a time-intensive, laborious field and requires resources to be successful.

It also mandates readership. What would have happened if the Boston Globe had printed their report to no response? What if survivors’ stories had been told but unheard? That would have been the greatest tragedy of all, and one that is realized often. In a technological age, competing voices override each other so that the public doesn’t know where to concentrate.

But we must find a way to concentrate. We must. So when the still-existent Spotlight publishes its next big catch, we’ll be ready to react.

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