Bulletin photos by Chris Christo

‘I think it’s fair to say based on what’s happened to our business in the past decade, that at most papers, the prevailing view is that investigative reporting is a luxury that we can no longer afford. And I think that is false. I think investigative reporting is a necessity that we cannot afford to do without.’

-- Walter V. Robinson,
Editor at large,
Boston Globe

Robinson: ‘Spotlight’ turns
spotlight on the then and now
of investigative reporting

By Sarah Schwarz
Bulletin Staff

Walter Robinson never dreamed of being famous. He never wanted cameras pointed at him and microphones shoved in his face. As an investigative reporter for The Boston Globe, Robinson was always the one asking questions, a role he much prefers.

“It’s a little odd to suddenly be the subject of public attention, which has happened to myself and several of my colleagues in the past five or six months,” Robinson said. “Soon we’ll all turn back into pumpkins and I’ll be happy.”

Robinson’s comments referred to his involvement with the Oscar-nominated film “Spotlight,” which depicts Robinson’s work as editor of the Globe’s investigative reporting Spotlight team in breaking the scandal of serial sex abuse of children by priests in the Roman Catholic Church and the cover-up of those crimes.

On Friday, Feb. 19, at the New England Newspaper and Press Association’s winter convention at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel, Robinson discussed the film and his role in it and the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of the sex abuse scandal.

Robinson is now editor at large at the Globe. He has worked there since 1972. He began at the Globe as an intern through Northeastern University’s co-op program, and has built a reputation as one of the Globe’s most prominent investigative reporters. He also has been a local, state and national political reporter, including seven years in the Globe’s Washington, D.C., bureau; a national and foreign correspondent, including serving as Middle East bureau chief; city editor and assistant managing editor for local news. In 2007, he returned to Northeastern University to teach an investigative reporting course for seven years. Students in the course produced 26 front-page stories for the Globe.

Robinson never pushed for “Spotlight” to be made, and originally thought that the producers were foolish to approach him with the idea. He thought that there was no way a filmmaker could turn the reporting, which he described as often “boring, monotonous, tedious, stupefying, constipating, mind-numbing and sleep-inducing,” into something any audience would want to watch. When he realized that the producers were serious, however, he and the producers began a long process of collaboration to create a film that would depict the events in an accurate way, even though the story would ultimately be fiction based in fact.

“The movie is not a transcript. It is not a documentary,” Robinson said. “It is a fictional account that is based on the work we did in 2001.”

Robinson said he and his team were happily impressed by the amount of time that the film’s writers and cast spent researching the events depicted in the film, the Globe team’s reporting, and character traits of each of the Spotlight reporters. Robinson said he realized that the producers were serious about making the film an accurate portrayal when they came to the Globe offices and asked to see every document pertaining to the investigation.

“They didn’t leave many stones unturned,” Robinson said. “So we became convinced that they intended to make a film that accurately reflected what happened.”

Because “Spotlight” is intended to be a truthful portrayal, some elements of a typical Hollywood film are missing. Most notably, there is no romantic storyline, something a script consultant initially pushed for before Robinson’s fellow Spotlight team member, Sacha Pfeiffer, decisively nixed the idea. As the only woman on the team, she was sure to be the center of such a storyline, a role she was not open to accepting, Robinson said.

“If you’ve seen the film, then you know there are no affairs,” Robinson said. “You can tell from the film, who had the time?”

Robinson also talked about the opportunity, created by the film, to discuss the larger issue of investigative reporting today. He thinks that the producers in Hollywood care more about the future of investigative reporting than most news outlets, a reality he sees as drastically flawed.

“I think it’s fair to say based on what’s happened to our business in the past decade, that at most papers, the prevailing view is that investigative reporting is a luxury that we can no longer afford,” Robinson said. “And I think that is false. I think investigative reporting is a necessity that we cannot afford to do without.”

Participant Media, the Beverly Hills, Calif.-based company that paid for the production of “Spotlight,” has endowed a $100,000, one-year investigative reporting fellowship.

Brian McGrory, editor of the Globe, has agreed to match that with a Globe reporter and supervisory editing of the reporting; various foundations are in the process of joining the investigative program too. Applications are open through the end of February, and Robinson encouraged those in the audience to apply.

After Robinson’s talk, he spent nearly equal time answering questions from the audience. Audience members were primarily interested in the authenticity of the portrayals in the film and in Robinson’s feelings about the story’s transition to film. But as the conversation continued, it turned toward the journalism industry as a whole.

One audience member asked Robinson to discuss the importance of an investigative team, as opposed to a one-person operation that many publications have today.

Robinson said the Spotlight team of “four relatively good reporters … sat down every day and went over the problems we were having; it’s like having a fifth brain in the room.”

Robinson said the team environment helps to balance egos and baggage often possessed by good reporters.

Audience members also were curious about how Robinson and his co-workers were able to manage the potential connection between their upbringing and the Catholic church story. Because the story broke soon after Marty Baron became the Globe’s editor, there were questions about the potential connection between his Jewish faith and the ability to tackle the series.

“The fact that Marty’s Jewish didn’t really have much to do with it; it had nothing to do with it,” Robinson said. “What was different about Marty was, number one, he was an extremely smart editor, but he was an outsider.”

Baron joined the Globe staff from the Miami Herald in Florida, where almost all records are public, Robinson said. The Spotlight team previously saw the potential for a story in the church scandal, but judges had sealed all the documents necessary to prove any wrongdoing. Baron was the one who encouraged Robinson and his team to try to get the records and their content made public, something they had not thought to do previously.

The majority of the audience stayed for a question-and-answer period that went well past the scheduled end of the talk. Many of the later questions were about the differences in today’s news media versus that of 2001, when “Spotlight” takes place.

One audience member asked Robinson whether he thinks the “Spotlight” story could have a similar effect to that of The Washington Post’s Watergate investigation, which inspired many young people to go into journalism.

“In 1972, journalism jobs were there for the taking,” Robinson said. “And I think they still are, but I think you have to be a little more entrepreneurial to get the right job.”

Robinson ended the earlier portion of his presentation with a call for thought and discussion about the larger issues of importance in journalism in the digital age.

“Different people have different hopes for the film. Those who made it hope it will win the Academy Award for best picture. Some of us hope the film provokes this kind of a conversation about what matters most in journalism,” Robinson said. “I share that hope, and I hope you do as well.”


The audience received Walter Robinson’s ‘Spotlight’ presentation enthusiastically, asking so many questions that the session went past its scheduled time.

‘Different people have different hopes for the film. Those who made it hope it will win the Academy Award for best picture. Some of us hope the film provokes this kind of a conversation about what matters most in journalism. I share that hope, and I hope you do as well.’

-- Walter V. Robinson

Sarah Schwarz is an undergraduate student in the Northeastern University School of Journalism.

 

POSTED 2/25/16


 



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