It feels like decades since pop culture has presented journalists as anything other than leeches or buffoons. But “Spotlight,” Tom McCarthy’s dramatic depiction of the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative unit, has proven that Hollywood still has a soft spot for the news business. The film took home the Oscar for best picture on Sunday, beating out the timelier “The Big Short” and crowd-pleasers like “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
If nothing else, it’s a morale booster for journalists, publishers and journalism students, who have gotten used to on-screen offerings like “Anchorman,” where newsmakers are reduced to empty-headed egomaniacs, or Netflix’s “House of Cards,” where they’re cast as ruthless, sex-mongering opportunists. It’s no wonder the American public loathes journalists only slightly less than lawyers.
But in following the Globe’s 2002 investigation into a massive cover-up of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, “Spotlight” offers a counterweight to the narrative that newsmakers are worthy only of contempt.
“I think this gives us a shot in the arm when journalists are getting bashed nightly by virtually all the presidential candidates, and offers encouragement on whether people should enter this profession,” Jane Hall, a journalism professor at American University, told International Business Times. “It reminds us why we all got into this.”
Thank god. Journalism is saved by Hollywood.
— Justin Ellis (@JustinNXT) February 29, 2016
Not since “All the President’s Men” came out on the heels of the Watergate scandal in 1976 has a film promised to energize the journalism business. Just ask Marty Baron, leader of the Globe’s eponymous “Spotlight” investigation team, who went on to become the executive editor of the Washington Post.
“In emails, tweets and Facebook posts, journalists have declared themselves inspired, buoyed and affirmed,” Baron wrote last week in an op-ed. “That is no small matter in this badly bruised profession.”
“Especially heartening has been the reaction of some publishers,” he added. “One in California rented a theater to show the movie to the paper’s entire staff. Another wrote me on Facebook: ‘You and the Spotlight team ... have reenergized me to find a business model to support this critical work.’”
Baron recently echoed these thoughts to Hall at American University, where 300 people came to see him give a talk with Hall despite a tornado warning. Hall told IBT she was amazed at the turnout, and the way the film had lit a fire in the bellies of her students.
“The thing that was so exciting to me was that students really have been excited about the film and feel validation about going into journalism,” she said. “Winning the Pulitzer is probably also cool, but winning an Oscar gives something a cool factor.”
Hall thinks the film will likely be a major informal recruitment tool for journalism schools, some of which have seen dwindling enrollment, like Columbia Journalism School. (Other j-schools, like the University of Missouri and CUNY, have been taking on more students.)
“I went to Columbia’s grad school partly because I was inspired by ‘All the President’s Men,’” she said. “I think ‘Spotlight’ will be shown in schools.”
Mark Horvit, executive director at Missouri School of Journalism’s IRE organization, (Investigative Reporters and Editors), isn’t so sure “Spotlight” will have quite the same effect as the 1976 classic.
“That was a movie about the presidency, and it was much more current,” he said. “This about something in the past.” It’s true that the scandal depicted in “Spotlight,” no matter how dramatic, would have a tough time shocking people as much as a story about a trail of breadcrumbs that brought down a presidency. As Horvit noted, “President’s Men” came out right in the aftermath of Watergate, whereas the drama of “Spotlight,” set in 2001, is detached from the second-by-second news craze of 2016.
Still, Horvit says, it can’t hurt. “I think still it would be wrong to underestimate the impact -- we’re seeing an upsurge already over the past four or five years in interest in doing investigative reporting.”
“Conference attendance, [IRE] memberships at all are at a 40-year high,” he added.
That may be true, but at the same time, journalism generally is wildly unstable: Regional bureaus are closing and chasing clicks has sparked a race to the bottom online. The best thing “Spotlight” can do, Horvit suggested, is convince people, and the next generation of reporters, that this business is more than listicles, tabloid headlines and, worst of all, TV punditry.
“I think what’s hurt the industry the most is that the public sees some people who scream opinions and think that’s what we mean by journalism,” he said. “What this movie does, anyone who sees it can differentiate between that and what the Spotlight team was doing.”
“Nothing could more helpful,” Horvit said.
Understandably, the Boston Globe is using "Spotlight" to promote its journalism work and rope new recruits. On the night of the Oscar triumph, the paper’s Twitter account let everyone know that the Spotlight team is still in full swing and looking for fresh blood.
— The Boston Globe (@BostonGlobe) February 29, 2016
ProPublica, another standard bearer for investigative journalism, is also riding the coattails of the film in soliciting donations to fund its work. “[M]ost of us here at ProPublica were rooting for 'Spotlight' to win the Oscar for best picture,” a fundraising letter reads. “Please show your support for the heroic efforts of investigative journalists by donating to ProPublica today.”
— Joseph Lichterman (@ylichterman) February 29, 2016
Hall is hoping to see a bump not only in recruitment but also grad school attendance.
“I don’t think young people lack for idealism in journalism; I think they need validation that this is still something you can do, something that’s rewarding,” she said. “So I think it’s heartening for the public to see what we do, and for journalists to see this is why it’s important.”