There couldn’t have been a better moment for the movie Spotlight to win at the Academy Awards — for best picture and best original screenplay. Coming within days of GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump’s threatening remarks on freedom of the press, these Oscars serve as validation of the journalism profession. They also recognize the rendering of the story behind the story of The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative series exposing sexual abuse by Catholic priests.
“We would not be here today without the heroic efforts of our reporters,” producer Blye Faust said in accepting the Oscar for best picture. Heroism was the theme.
Still, there is another important takeaway. It springs from a moment in the movie.
There is an exchange between actor Liev Schreiber, who played the methodical Globe editor Marty Baron, and John Slattery as the eager assistant managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. on whether the paper’s Spotlight investigative team should move forward with a story on the abusive priests.
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Baron: “We need to focus on the institution, not the individual priests. Practice and policy …”
Bradlee: “Sounds like we’re going after (Cardinal Bernard Francis) Law.”
Baron: “We’re going after the system.”
Wrapped in that last comment is the recognition by Baron, now executive editor of The Washington Post, that merely exposing individual wrongdoers does not go far enough if systemic flaws enable wrongdoing to continue.
That is the driving dramatic question for the movie and the emerging motivation for the Globe journalists.
Even more, though, it is a compelling challenge for the journalism profession on matters of race. Too often, we are content to frame stories about racial conflict as individual problems and not as institutional ones.
College campus tension, excessive police force, even racial political pandering are all framed as anomalies, problems caused by misguided individuals. As with Spotlight, that frame excludes what should be our real focus. As a result, we wind up missing a critical realization: We just might be part of the system we are “going after.”
In the movie, that possibility is teased out as the realization sets in with actor Michael Keaton’s character, Spotlight editor Walter “Robby” Robinson. Admitting he was “raised Catholic,” he sees late in the investigation that a church sex-scandal story could have — should have — been more thoroughly covered by the paper “years ago.” Instead it was buried in the Metro section, where he had been editor.
The inference is sobering: Perhaps the Globe itself was part of the network of institutions that must be held accountable. Reporters and editors, living and working in a pro-Catholic community culture, had on blinders.
Fast forward. Consider whether we also have on blinders in covering difficult social issues. The possibility of cultural bias cannot be ignored.
This is not a left-right bias, or even necessarily a black-white bias. This bias can spring from something seemingly benign — a belief that the system is fundamentally sound. People tend to believe problems only arise when individuals abuse the system.
Many people believe cops serve and protect, do the right thing, and people are arrested because they do the wrong thing. And that is the point at which race can enter into it. Because of social constructions of race, we have preset notions of who is likely to do wrong and who is likely to be in the right — who is bad, who is good.
No surprise, then, that some people are quick to accept Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke’s justification for shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times. No surprise that they are quick to accept that McDonald posed a threat. He was, after all, African American and had a knife. No surprise that people accepted the initial claim by Cleveland Officer Timothy Loehmann that 12-year-old Tamir Rice posed a threat after refusing a demand to drop his gun, which turned out to be a toy. In both cases, too many journalists accepted the first police explanations, which may have fit a preset notion of right and wrong. In each case, video evidence released later motivated journalists to question the police narrative.
Journalists ask questions. We are very good at the who, what, where and when of it all. Not so much the “why.” In these stories, it is the why that provides deeper understanding and context.
This country is on the cusp of a new demographic reality — no single racial or ethnic majority. Clearly, it is becoming a time of shared power that some people are having difficulty navigating. Why?
As journalists, we have a responsibility to help the public reach a deeper understanding of these changes and their systemic context. Raising questions. Questioning the answers. If we don’t ask “why?” then the public has every right to ask, “Why not?” — and the spotlight turns on us.
Christopher D. Benson is an associate professor of journalism and African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.