Sitting in the movie theater watching Spotlight last night, I was alternately proud and concerned about the state of investigative journalism today.
The movie chronicles how a team of Boston Globe reporters uncovered rampant child abuse by pedophile priests within the Boston diocese.
The team won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for its investigation, and rightfully so. The Globe’s editors and reporters displayed remarkable courage and tenacity in uncovering the story while facing a powerful and ingrained institution: the Catholic church. The investigation prompted reforms that reached to the highest levels.
Spotlight is an accurate portrayal of what it’s like to be part of a team investigating a big story — taking one step forward for every two back. Dealing with pushback and spin from people outside and sometimes even inside the newsroom. Working nights and weekends and not seeing much of your family.
The movie made me proud to be a journalist, in the same way that “All the President’s Men” helped inspire me to become the journalist I am today. Spotlight celebrates what is best about this profession: a commitment to helping those without a voice tell their stories and in the process, making the world a better — and more honest — place.
As a judge for several prestigious national contests the past several years, I’ve been privileged to see the best reporting that journalists around the world are producing:
* Reporters at The Guardian and The Washington Post broke the story of how the NSA was indiscriminately collecting communication records on millions of U.S. citizens with no evidence the secret practice was making us safer.
* Reuters revealed that some Americans who had adopted children from foreign countries were giving them away in shady online exchanges with no oversight. (That reporting team included Oklahoma native Ryan McNeill and the project was a Pulitzer finalist.)
* An Arizona Republic investigation showed that veterans were dying while waiting for basic health care services at the Phoenix VA and officials were manipulating records to hide the long wait times.
These are just a few of the winners of contests I’ve judged in the past several years. But those lofty achievements aren’t limited to large organizations such as Reuters and The Guardian.
* The tiny staff at a website called InsideClimate News produced an outstanding investigation of the nation’s lax oil pipeline safety procedures, which had allowed energy companies to pollute land and water across the country.
* A year-long investigation by The Daily Breeze in Torrance, Calif. revealed widespread cronyism and corruption within a local school district that had failed students while enriching insiders.
All three of those investigations won Pulitzer Prizes.
While I cheer for news organizations large and small that pull off such important work, I’m also mindful some people don’t appreciate the value of investigative journalism and aren’t willing to pay for it.
There’s no shortcut. This kind of journalism takes time and resources.
Since April 2015, Dylan Goforth and I have been reporting on various aspects of the reserve deputy scandal that brought down former Sheriff Stanley Glanz. This investigation, along with a grassroots movement that led to a grand jury, eventually led to reforms and resignations at the sheriff’s office. We’ve written dozens of stories and plan to continue following this issue closely, as more changes are clearly needed.
Since April 2014, Cary Aspinwall and I have been reporting on the state’s bungled attempts to carry out the death penalty. Nearly 20 months later, Gov. Mary Fallin is still fighting in court, bringing up technicalities to avoid complying with our open records requests. With the help of Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, we are committed to seeing this lawsuit through until the end.
No matter how you feel about the death penalty, you should want it to be carried out legally, transparently and without international embarrassment to Oklahoma.
I’m proud to say that my former employer, the Tulsa World, backed us in both of these investigations. The World has also continued its support as a plaintiff in the open records lawsuit I filed against Fallin, who surely has the worst record of any Oklahoma governor when it comes to openness. (In recognition of her record, she received the Golden Padlock award from Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc. in 2014 and twice received FOI Oklahoma’s Black Hole award, along with her general counsel, Steve Mullins.)
None of these investigations would have been possible without backing in the first place from readers who supported and encouraged each organization.
So if you get a chance, go see Spotlight and see the kind of journalism we all should be proud of. The watchdogs who make this kind of journalism possible at all levels are thankful for your continued support.