Spotlight: Investigative Journalism at the Boston Globe

November 19, 2015

By Isabelle Gerretsen

On Wednesday 18 November, Sacha Pfeiffer and Mike Rezendes from The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-prize winning Spotlight team discussed their 2002 exposé of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, the subject of the new film Spotlight. They spoke to Richard Sambrook, former head of BBC News and director of the centre for journalism at Cardiff University, and were joined by the film’s  director Tom McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer.

At the start of the discussion, Pfeiffer and Rezendes stressed the importance of good investigative journalism and the role it plays in uncovering institutional injustices. Pfeiffer noted that investigative journalism is becoming “an endangered species.”

“It has to survive,” Rezendes said, “as it is critical to democratic societies.”

The Spotlight investigation in 2002 exposed the Catholic Church’s cover-up of paedophilia offences committed by more than 70 priests in Boston. With evidence gathered from church registries and court files, the Spotlight team thrust the sex abuse scandal into the public domain.

Rezendes said: “Documentation was the spine of our story. Our investigation was bulletproof because of the church documents which proved it was a systematic cover up that had lasted 30 years.”

The journalists convinced a judge to release the criminal prosecution files of Catholic Roman priests who had sexually abused minors. Rezendes said: “We argued that the church’s right to privacy was overruled by the public’s right to know what was in those files.”

The legal victory of the Spotlight team established an important precedent for disclosing abuse by the clergy and holding the church accountable.

When asked about the public reaction to the investigation, Pfeiffer responded: “We were really surprised. We were worried about protesters outside The Boston Globe’s offices. There were none.”

She then recounted how a Catholic priest had told her the report “was painful, but necessary.”

Rezendes added: “Our investigation unleashed a tidal wave of anger. Anger directed not at us, but at cardinal law.”

Both journalists commented on how impressed they were with the film adaptation for its realistic and honest portrayal of their work. Sambrook noted that the protagonists in the film, played by Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo, aren’t extrovert reporters but believable and restrained characters – “not what you would expect from a Hollywood film. A lot of the acting was in silent eyes.”

McCarthy responded: “Authenticity was always the catchword. We weren’t interested in Hollywood dramatisation. We became enamoured with the craft of reporting… We found all the tedious, monotonous work reporters do fascinating.”


An audience member asked how the reporters found victims who were willing to speak openly about their experience. Pfeiffer acknowledged the difficulty in encouraging victims to speak out: “They ran the risk of being shunned and ostracised. Those who did speak up broke the dam.”

Constructing a two hour film about a five month investigation was “challenging,” said McCarthy. “But we had the best helpers in the world.”

Filming was very much a collobarative effort between the actors and journalists. Pfeiffer and Rezendes spent a lot of time with their respective actors, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo. “We thought it was just social time,” Pfeiffer joked, “but we were being closely studied and mimicked.”

One of the audience members was a representative of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). He thanked the journalists and filmmakers for shedding list on the sex abuse scandal, but said that the church was still unwilling to listen to recommendations from organisation such as SNAP.

Singer said: “We had two aims when making this movie: to get everyone to go out and buy their local paper and to highlight the need for greater transparency in the church.”

Spotlight will be released in the UK on 29 January 2016.