Story way too close to home

By Rosie Dawson-Hewes

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XXX: The cast of Spotlight, a film which focuses on the investigative journalists who exposed the Catholic church's systematic cover-up of many incidents of abuse by priests in Boston. PHOTO/AP
XXX: The cast of Spotlight, a film which focuses on the investigative journalists who exposed the Catholic church's systematic cover-up of many incidents of abuse by priests in Boston. PHOTO/AP

Of all the great films I've seen recently, the most challenging and thought-provoking has to be Spotlight.

For any of you who aren't aware, it's based on the true story of the Boston Globe's four investigative journalists who, over the course of 2001 and 2002, exposed the Catholic Church's pattern of shifting and hiding cases of abuse carried out by hundreds of the Boston diocese's priests over several decades.

It was a truly great piece of film-making. I went to see it with a colleague and, aside from the fact we spent parts of the film giggling about the stereotypical journalistic traits that were oh-so-familiar, it was well-paced, cleverly told and showed just how much work goes into a story of that nature.

The journos on the Spotlight team spent months and months building relationships with sources, working with the legal system and, on occasion, literally walking the streets, banging down doors to find victims and perpetrators willing to talk.

It was the most accurate cinematic portrayal of my industry I've ever seen. There was no gloss, no shiny Hollywood treatment. Despite being set in 2001, the newsroom was dated and grey, much of the work was done in hard copy, even the wardrobe was scarily accurate - it would seem journalists unwittingly have a uniform of sorts. I've since laughed about it with others in the industry, we didn't realise we dressed so predictably till we saw it through someone else's eyes.

Accuracy aside, as a journalist and avid media consumer, it was a stark reminder of how important the work we do is. As a lapsed Catholic, I related to the (also lapsed Catholic) reporters as they tried to deal with the shock of discovering the length the church authorities went in covering up the abuse. I'm sure the Boston Globe's subscribers went through the same shock.

I remember when this story broke, and the many that followed it in other parishes and dioceses worldwide. I was a mere 17-year-old, heavily involved in my local parish. I had been my entire life, I didn't know any other way. I trusted the church and its teachings implicitly. But when I heard about this, it made me question things.

One of the Kiwi cases exposed in the aftermath was at the boys' boarding school in my hometown. My older brothers attended the school a year or two after a former Marist priest spent nine years sexually abusing schoolboys and young men. At one point in the film the Globe's editor, Marty Baron, says "All of you have done some very good reporting here. Reporting that I believe is going to have an immediate and considerable impact on our readers. For me, this kind of story is why we do this." I'm not sure if he realised at the time that the effects of his team's reporting would reach as far as little old New Zealand.

Now that I look back, I think these events were the beginning of seven years of me questioning the Catholic doctrine and my faith, to the point where I eventually turned away, no longer able to identify with an institution that, in my view, so blatantly turned its backs on those most in need of protection.

Stories like this have far-reaching consequences. Yes, they can be unpalatable to readers, but that doesn't mean they don't need to be told. Stories like this are why society needs the media so badly. Because stories like this challenge us, they challenge what we believe. And when we're challenged we question things, we search for answers and we become better for it.

We cannot let the media's true purpose be degraded. We need it to hold those in power to account, whether it's the actions of politicians and elected leaders, or those whose actions no-one else would dare challenge. It's a privilege which journalists take very seriously. Society needs trained professionals who ask the hard questions, understand the legal ramifications of what we publish, take the photographs and work tirelessly to dig out those powerful, life-changing stories that need to be told.

Not every story we tell is this important. Not every story wins a Pulitzer. But we need to preserve our fourth estate so it still exists to tell those hard stories when we need it to.

We need to ensure we have the means to question authority and protect and fight for those who can't fight for themselves in future. It's our job to shine a spotlight on those dark times and places. It's not always an easy job, but it's always an essential one.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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