What Spotlight Taught Me About Being a Journalist

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“I am here because I care. We’re going to tell this story. We’re going to tell it right,” Sacha Pfeiffer says in the now Oscar-winning movie Spotlight.

Being a student of journalism, Spotlight is an impactful reminder of why I want to be a part of this industry. It’s no secret that journalists are an ill-regarded breed. Perhaps that’s because journalists are considered untrustworthy- the very antithesis of what we’re supposed to be.

And I want to tell you that I don’t think you’re wrong if you feel this way about journalists. Sincerely, you should. When a good part of journalism’s history has been built on fabrication, sensationalism and clumsy misreporting, why should you be anything less than skeptical?

Last Friday night in a lecture auditorium on campus, I finally saw Spotlight. This is one of those movies that reminds you of the better side of journalism- the part where a story can change people’s lives. The part where a story can resolve past conflicts, reveal a terrifying truth, heal years-worth of open wounds and possibly save people from a number of different horrors.

If you don’t know what I’m referring to, Spotlight is about the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting team’s expose of 90 priests who sexually abused children in the Boston area. The story, or what became a series of stories, won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003.

There were some really important lessons in this movie as someone who is pursuing a career in journalism. Two of the biggest lessons were the importance of “getting it right” and the realization that stories and words can change someone’s life.

When I’ve asked people why they’re going into journalism, the most common answer I receive is ‘to change the world.’ That was one of my reasons, too. Journalism is one of the most immediately gratifying industries in that way, because journalism allows us to directly interact with the people who might be most affected by the stories we write. This can be beautiful in terms of giving people the voice we all deserve to have. But, this can also be a very heavy reality journalists have to deal with. We get to decide what to reveal about people in many instances. Whether you believe that’s ethical or not is a different story, but we decide this typically on the basis of what the public deserves to know. Though it may not always seem that way, we serve the public first and foremost. What this means is that sometimes things can be revealed about people that can make or break them, and we sit at the helm of determining that. Though, except for journalistic scandals here and there, we’re not the ones who make the story; we just report it. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Another lesson that I have been realizing I learned from Spotlight is to be persistent and to persevere. I am currently writing my big story (a story that covers a news issue, complete with four or more interviews. I have a month to work on the story) for my news-writing class. I’m not even a week into this assignment and I have already had to Facebook message, call and text one person who still isn’t responding to me. So I will do like the reporters portrayed in Spotlight did, and keep working on him. It’s annoying, admittedly, but there are only so many people in Columbia, Mo who can tell me this story.

Then again, as annoying and challenging as it can be, I think that’s what I like most about journalism: the ability to tell all of these stories through the people who know them best. Like so many, I’m a sucker for a good story.

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