Adventism Can Learn Much from “Spotlight” Movie
by Sam Geli, February 2, 2016: The new film “Spotlight” recounts The Boston Globe’s investigation revealing what the Catholic church knew about sexual abuse of children by priests and covered up, even allowing guilty priests to keep their jobs. The film has an ensemble cast that includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams. It closely follows the Globe’s investigative Spotlight team as it slowly unwinds the story, including the actions of a priest named Paul Geoghan, implicated in many abuse cases, and his ultimate superior, Cardinal Bernard Law, then the very prominent leader of the Catholic Church in Boston. The “Spotlight” reporters culled 18 years of church directories to track over 900 active and retired priests. The team then created a database which allowed it to match a target list of 100 priests with allegations of abuse. They zeroed in on priests who had been moved from one parish to another, sent on sick leave, or otherwise removed from active service and left “unassigned.” There are many lessons to be learned from watching this compelling, Academy Award-nominated film. There are two essential ones that could help us in the Adventist church.
Adventist journalism needs to probe deeper into issues that are impacting the church. Beyond women’s ordination there are many other themes and questions that are not being asked. We need investigative journalism now more than ever in an age where young people, new members, and others in our communities are calling for greater accountability. In my recollection, no film has ever done a better job of showing reporters and editors in their “watchdog” role, digging out important news others want kept secret, than “Spotlight.”
A critical moment in “Spotlight” comes when the editor describes three ways the Globe could frame the story: concentrating on the one priest who has been in the news; telling the story of the larger number of priests that they had identified as abusers (though with less detail); or focusing on the Roman Catholic Church, and its Boston leadership, as an “institution.” Before the team chooses that third way, he explains that only by proving the church leaders’ knowledge of the priests’ grievous misconduct on a wide scale, then demanding accountability, can things be changed.
News organizations routinely make such decisions about how to frame the information that their investigations produce. As “Spotlight” shows, such choices dramatically shape both the story that is produced and its impact. We need more accurate and deliberate Adventist journalism. On multiple occasions throughout this movie we see journalists holding on to their story and not moving forward with publishing because, faced with the power of the church, they feel they have to get it right. This is a huge contrast to today’s norm where often stories are uncovered and thrust online as soon as possible. Adventist media and sometimes other Adventist-related news outlets need to examine what they are doing and how they are doing it in reporting stories surrounding Dr. Ben Carson, Adventist Health System fraud settlement with the government, Mrs. Ted Cruz’s being an SDA church member, church entities and “official” reactions and scenarios to women’s ordination vote in San Antonio, and the list goes on, to name some current examples where more accurate journalism and investigative reporting was needed.
The competition to be the first to break a story means news is often rushed and evidence not always accurate, but the Spotlight team did get it right. Holding back for as long as they did in order to make certain the evidence was verified meant that when they broke the story, their argument was so powerful that there was no possible counterblow against them.
With a decline in modern day investigative journalism, the “Spotlight” team’s tactics bring into question the methods of today’s journalist, who holds breaking a story first at a higher value than reliability. It questions what kind of impact this style draws. The “Spotlight” team’s deeper method of reporting appears to be the successful way of holding powerful people accountable for their actions. Even though there’s no immediacy to their work, they ultimately teach us that investing in a deeper style of investigative journalism could yield a story that has more power behind it.
Anything that raises awareness of the crime of sexual abuse of minors and encourages transparency is a good thing. “Spotlight” will be a vehicle to communicate the truth and advance the dialogue regarding the protection of children. As individuals and as a church we need to actively work to protect children at every level through prompt reporting to and cooperation with law enforcement authorities, through clergy, employee and volunteer background checks and awareness training, and through age-appropriate child protection programs in our schools and youth programs.
We all need the “Spotlight” on truth.