Monday, February 22, 2016

The Difficulty of Being Good - in Journalism

I saw a superb movie today called ‘Spotlight’. It’s the true story of a team of reporters at the Boston Globe newspaper who chased a story which everybody was trying to cover up (as is the case with every great story!). In this case, the villain of the piece was no less than the Catholic Church.

The efforts of the Spotlight team revealed that parish priest John Goeghan had been sexually abusing young boys and girls for close to three decades. What’s worse - he was just one of more then 70 priests who were indulging in such behaviour and getting away with it. With the knowledge of the highest officials in the Catholic Church.

The story was happening right there, in front of everyone’s nose, but people chose not to see it. To bring such stories out of the Cave of Shame and the Cloak of Cover-Up is the dharma of the professional journalist.

The work these reporters did is what we call ‘old-school journalism’. They started with a single lead (Geoghan), then went backward and forward. Found people willing to speak on the record and off the record. Did actual running around and legwork. Finally they got documentary evidence to back it all up (which is always the hardest part)

To do this kind of journalism you need a great editor. Someone who will be your taskmaster and cheerleader - rolled into one. In this case, that editor is Marty Baron. He sets the ball rolling by asking the team to look into the Geoghan case. As they unearth more and more dirt, the editor stands by them, and gently nudges the direction of the investigation.

It’s not enough to focus on the priests, he says. The bigger story is ‘the system’. If the cardinal knew about it and turned a blind eye - now that’s the real crux of the problem.

So the team scrambles to get the crucial evidence which can prove this. Yes, it’s going to take more time. But the editor understands that - a great story is never done in a hurry.

To run such a story you need a publisher with balls of steel. You might lose readers, you might lose advertisers, you might upset powerful people. Well, the Boston Globe ran the story anyway - hats off to them!

Finally, it’s the reporters themselves who get consumed by what they are reporting. They are sad, they are angry, they feel guilty (how could we not know earlier?) These emotions are channeled into the pursuit of the story, the determination to do whatever it takes.

There is also an element of fear - having worked months on this story, what if the rival paper gets a whiff of it and publishes first? That is a professional hazard which keeps reporters on their toes. In the movie (as in many actual newsrooms) the journalists appear to be married to their jobs.

You do it because you want to make a difference. The Spotlight team got that elusive satisfaction which every journalist craves for. The paper went on to publish more than 600 stories about the Catholic Church abuse scandal and hundreds of victims came forward, not just in Boston, but around the United States.

As I watched the events on screen unfold I thought - there are so many stories happening right under our nose, just waiting to be told. But where are the editors with nerves of steel? Where are the publishers with spine? Because when you have these two necessary elements, there will be enough reporters willing to do everything it takes to unearth the story.

At present, journalism - like every other profession - is going through a crisis. Owners of media have decided their customer is not the reader but the advertiser.

What they forget is that without readers - very soon - there will be no advertisers.

So don’t just grumble about how newspaper brands and trusted editorial faces have ‘sold out’. The way to register your protest is to stop buying those newspapers, stop watching those channels.

Stop consuming junk news, which is just as bad for your health as junk food.

For the last one year I have stopped subscribing to newspapers and I have no cable TV connection. I am not ‘missing out’ on anything. In fact, I am much happier starting my day without a heavy dose of paid publicity. And I am certainly much calmer ending my day without the shrill voices of TV debaters ringing in my ears.

It is my contention that if just 50 buildings in Mumbai with residents in ‘SEC A’ category stop patronising the media which they moan about for 6 months- it will have an impact.

Owners will say ‘the market is sending a signal’ and clean up their act.

We will then have reporters chasing the stories which need to be chased.

We will get the journalism we deserve.

Disqus for Youth Curry - Insight on Indian Youth