Why we need to be curious
Spotlight is not a film about heroes. It is based on the investigative journalism of the “Spotlight” team at the Boston Globe, during 2001 and 2002, to expose the nature and extent of child sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, USA.
Their work provided an impetus to further work by other reporters and also the development of official investigations not only in the USA, but in other countries including Australia. The “Spotlight” journalists won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Their original reports make illuminating reading, not only for their investigative style but also for the detailed and lengthy analysis they provide.
When the idea of the “Spotlight” team is explained to the new Globe editor, near the start of the film Spotlight, it sounds almost quaint to our 24-hour news/twitter/instant-information way of thinking. A small team of experienced and focused journalists consider a subject or area, often spending months (or, possibly, a year or two) researching, analysing and writing before publishing. At a time when people want instant results and opinion, there is little opportunity for sustained investigation such as this.
The film highlights the continued need today for independent journalism. At one point during Spotlight, when the scale of the abuse is uncovered, questions are raised by one of the journalists: Why did we not know? Someone must have known? Even at the Globe, it became evident that certain stories were known, but were not connected or followed up in a sustained way.
At the 2015 Australasian Religious Press Association Conference, John Harrison commented on this matter and used the term “Incurious” to describe media workers in Australia, during the period when the “Spotlight” investigation was happening. This is a helpful word; the idea that the church and many journalists of the time were seemingly not interested in knowing what was happening and the extent to which it was happening.
It was too challenging for the continued and “normal” operation of the church and culture.
This context was the opposite of the idea of inquiry, and revealed an indifference that was part of a wider culture of ignoring or even suppressing information. As noted, the Globe didn’t pursue some reported cases. This was not because it was substantially staffed by people of Catholic faith but, rather, the overall culture did not encourage a sustained critique of dominant institutions and authorities.
Spotlight is a fine film in the newspaper film genre. Like All the President’s Men (1976) or the more recent Nothing But The Truth (2008), it continues the gritty on-screen depiction of real events as seen through a pressured and changing journalistic environment.
Even though it is set 15 years ago, Spotlight is a sobering film for church members and, ultimately, contemporary society. It leads all viewers to consider our response and allegiance – is it to the “institution”, or to the one holy, universal and apostolic church? Spotlight also proves to be illuminating in regard to why there has been a wider societal change in terms of the trust, and general perception, of priests and ministers.
As one of the survivors says on-screen: “They say it’s just physical abuse, but it’s more than that. This was spiritual abuse. You know why I went along with everything? Because priests are supposed to be the good guys.”
Spotlight is an example of how good writing and telling a story well can lead to real change.
It avoids the self-righteousness that can sometimes come out in didactic Hollywood films. In this way, it should help all viewers to examine their own lives, faith and incurious ties.
Peter Bentley is the President of the Australasian Religious Press Association (ARPA)