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Reliving connections with an 'Oscars' hero
From:chinadaily.com.cn  |  2016-05-27 11:16

Former Boston Globe Spotlight Team editor Walter "Robby" Robinson (L) reunites with former Globe colleagues Manli Ho and John B. Wood (R) in San Francisco last month.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Former China Daily journalists catch up with Boston Globe colleagues who found fame with Spotlight.

"Spotlight", the movie named after the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative team that in the early 2000’s wrote an explosive series on child sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church and its attendant cover-up, was a surprise winner at this year’s Academy Awards. But that was not the only surprise.

Who could imagine that a story about shoe leather journalism, about the drudgery of digging for facts and knocking on doors, about the tedium of finding and poring over thousands of documents, could be depicted with such authenticity and yet be such an immersive and moving experience?

Certainly not the members of the Spotlight Team, who, when approached by the filmmakers, wondered how a film could be made about a decidedly unglamorous process. "It would be like a film about how sausage is made", Walter "Robby" Robinson, the then head of the Spotlight Team, recalled recently.

But since then, Robby Robinson and his colleagues "have been struck by lightening", as he put it. For journalists, this well-deserved paean to the professional ethos of a vocation which has been losing ground to the instant gratification Internet age is bittersweet.

For us, this film is particularly meaningful because we had both worked at the Boston Globe. We and Robby Robinson came to the Globe during the heyday of print journalism, an era when the Washington Post’s Watergate investigations had created aspirations in every young reporter to become a Woodward and Bernstein.

The Globe Spotlight Team was formed in 1970, modeled after the Times of London’s Insight Team to do investigations and to shine a "spotlight" into dark corners. Their reporters were not subject to a daily deadline, would take months to conduct their investigations, did not talk about what they were working on and were set apart from the rest of the newsroom, thus creating a somewhat mysterious aura. The stories they filed had to adhere to the strictures of journalistic discipline and ethics; they had to be airtight.

By necessity, the reporters assigned to the Spotlight Team were not the flamboyant stars of the newsroom, nor the competitive self-promoters who needed to see their bylines on the front page every day. Instead, they had to be the solid, dogged, relentless, journeymen reporters, willing to go dark for months on end, and whose egos would not get in the way of the story.

Even so, it took a confluence of time and events - when sexual abuse was no longer a hidden crime, and the fresh perspective of a new editor who was an outsider - for this story to break. It also took courage to continue to pull at the dangling thread that unraveled the whole piece of cloth, because unlike political or civic institutions, the Catholic Church had exercised centuries of moral authority over generations of the faithful who were raised to believe that it was the voice of God. Although the filmmakers made a valiant effort to show the pervasive hold that the Church had in Boston, and to show the Catholic backgrounds of some of the reporters themselves, it is just not possible to feel the depth of its grip in largely Catholic strongholds like Boston, unless one had seen it firsthand.

Even non-Catholics felt the powerful culture of the church. One small example: in 1975, one of us, Manli, wrote a full page feature story on life at a Catholic convent. Permission had to be obtained from the Archdiocese of Boston for a reporter to spend three days in the convent and to interview the cloistered nuns who received a special dispensation to break their vow of silence. After the story hit print, it engendered a delirious response, both in the newsroom and in the community at large, carrying an impact that to us seemed so astonishingly outsized, even overshadowing other more serious newsworthy stories. Several readers even wrote in to admonish Manli for writing that it seemed a shame that no one else would be in the convent chapel to hear the beautiful ethereal singing of the praying nuns at dawn every day. "God hears them", one reader wrote.

At the time, a fellow reporter praised Manli’s writing style, because he claimed, he wrote "AP moron style" in reference to the utilitarian wire service language used by the Associated Press. That reporter was Robby Robinson.

Poster of the 2015 film Spotlight [Photo/ Mtime]

Robby Robinson was, as his character said in the film "Boston born and bred" and raised a Catholic. He attended the Jesuit-run Boston College High School, whose building is visible across Morrissey Boulevard from the Globe. He first came to the Globe in 1972 as a Northeastern University work-study program coop student. We worked together for several years and in 1981, when we left for Beijing to help found an English language paper for China named China Daily, Robby Robinson stayed at the Boston Globe and worked his way up the ranks.

In the afterglow of a successful movie, we sat down last month with Robby Robinson, now Editor-at-Large at the Globe, to talk about the future of print and investigative journalism in the Internet age, and the eternal pull of journalism.

Does the so-called "old fashioned" investigative journalism still exist?

Yes, it does, though not nearly as much as it should. The most important part of any investigative reporting remains the face-to-face interaction reporters have with people, both victims and victimizers. Getting people to open up on any subject is difficult to do by text, email or even telephone. Unfortunately, there is less and less of this kind of reporting, as editors in many hollowed-out newsrooms have decided that investigative reporting is a luxury they can no longer afford. They are wrong. It is a necessity we can not afford to do without.

Where is the present state of investigative journalism in this virtual age?

Newsrooms have far fewer resources - thanks to the Internet and its negative impact on revenues. But because of the Internet, reporters have many more resources at their keyboards. Thus, it is now possible to do online in a day or two the kind of reporting that once took weeks or months to do, if it could be done at all.

If so, how does it work now? And on what platform? What have we gained and what have we lost?

Two decades ago, for example, researching one person's property holdings could take weeks of going through musty old volumes in the courthouse. Now the same research can be done online in minutes. This is true in many areas of reporting.

And the platform: Once, one needed to work for a major news organization for his or her investigative work to be recognized and have impact. That is no longer true. Even bloggers, and smaller news sites, can do investigative reporting that will go viral if it is well done. Unfortunately, we have lost more than we have gained, simply because newspapers nationally have barely half the reporters they had two decades ago.

We come from a print journalism tradition. How do you apply professional ethics in this Internet age?

The temptations to cut corners are greater. To make money, many news organizations now feature so-called sponsored content - ads that are often hard to differentiate from news. Many radio stations now sell ads to companies with get-rich-quick schemes, ads they would have refused even a decade ago. Reporters are under so much pressure to produce stories in a hurry that some smaller papers now reproduce press releases as if they were news stories. These sorts of ethical lapses would have raised an outcry until recently.

Just as Watergate served to inspire our generation of journalists, do you think "Spotlight" will inspire a new generation?

It is our hope that the film will help prospective journalists understand that, despite the economic challenges to the news business, it is a noble profession, with an opportunity to effect change. I've spoken on several college campuses recently, and journalism students are inspired by the film.

When you talk to students about journalism, what do you hope to be the take-away for them?

I hope they understand that we all need to find a career that is rewarding; that very often journalists can shine a bright light into life's darkest corners; that journalists can give a voice to the voiceless; that journalists can help provide justice for life's victims; that journalism is a life worth living; and that the rewards for doing good journalism are greater than making it into the top one percent.