Why journalism still matters — go see “Spotlight”

By Caitlin Kelly

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The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

Their clothes are drab, cheap, poorly- fitting.

All they do is sit at desks or talk on the phone or knock on doors.

Their work takes months.

Why on earth would this make a compelling film?

I admit it, I’m biased, having worked as a journalist for more than 20 years. I’ve been doing it since my undergraduate years at university and still enjoy it, even though 24,000 of us lost our jobs in 2008 and thousands more are losing their jobs every year now.

The film is about the Boston Globe’s investigative team, called Spotlight, and their controversial and much-challenged decision to look into allegations of child abuse within the Catholic church there.

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The cast is terrific — fellow Canadian Rachel McAdams, John Slattery (of Mad Men), Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci.

The newsroom looks like every newsroom everywhere, overlit, ugly, standard-issue desks and chairs, glass-walled executive offices. Its power structure,  (interesting how it parallels the church they investigate, and how every senior editor is male), also deeply familiar.

The mix of political cynicism and compassion for the people they’re covering — and the remorse they feel as they realize they knew about the story years before and ignored it — also resonate.

But what left me in tears was how truthful is the portrayal of my work, certainly as part of a daily newspaper staff; I worked at the Globe & Mail, the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News.

It takes patience.

It takes persistence.

It takes a ton of tedious-but-essential detail work like reading old directories and chasing down court documents.

It takes a belief that what you’re doing all day, for months, actually might make a substantive difference — at best — in the lives of your readers.

Working as a news or investigative reporter is a weird mix of aggressive digging, pressure to stop digging, (by angry sources, power brokers, bosses worried you won’t bring home the goods), and the growing conviction that you’re on a huge story you have to get, no matter the cost.

Your co-workers may question and resent you — since they’re expected to crank out copy every day, possibly multiple times a day — and your team has yet to show anything in print, even after months of work.

The people you’re investigating will do anything to shut you down, from polite threats over a cocktail to appeals to your civic pride. (It can get much more bare-knuckled than that.)

The film shows reporters doing what no film ever shows — reporting.

That means knocking on door after door, some of them slammed in your face, some of them suddenly opened and a confession spilling out so fast you write it down as you walk away, as McAdams does in one scene.

It can mean sitting with, and witnessing, incredible pain when someone tells you they have been molested or raped, but not hugging them or saying anything — instead, as McAdams does — saying quietly, “We need specific language.”

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Me, hard at work on assignment in Bilwi, Nicaragua.

To anyone but a reporter, she sounds shockingly callous and cold. Why isn’t she comforting the man telling her his secrets?

Because that’s not our job. (Even if, and it often is, our social impulse.)

I’ve been in that place, as someone who had been raped told me her story. It’s a delicate moment you’re neither trained or prepared for, like holding a water balloon — one false move and it shatters. You have to be calm, quiet, empathetic and just listen. Your job is to witness, not to emote or react.

I loved that the female reporter is portrayed as dogged and relentless as her two male peers. We are!

I love that her nails are bare, that she wears no jewelery but a plain wedding band and apparently little make-up. In the world of news journalism, that shit really doesn’t matter. It’s one reason I love it and felt comfortable within it.

It was powerful to see the conflict between the reporter’s private feelings — about faith, about the Church, about their own history — and the work they were doing. I know reporters personally who covered this story and what it did to them emotionally. This rang true.

I loved seeing a brief glimpse of a friend’s book, Lead Us Not Into Temptation, and his name in the final credits; Jason Berry, a New Orleans journalist, was one of the first to write about this issue. I met Jason in Paris many years ago when we were both chosen to participate in a year-long European journalism fellowship.

When I left the theater to use the bathroom, three women my age there had just seen it as well — and we got into a long, deep, impassioned and personal conversation about the film and why journalists want to do that kind of work. It was an amazing encounter for all of us, one of whom works with Catholic church abuse victims.

I told them about my two books and the kind of interviews I’ve done that were equally soul-searing, and my hope that sharing them with a larger audience would be useful somehow. It made me realize, sadly, how rarely I get to talk to non-journalists about my work and why I believe so deeply in the value of it, still. It moved me to hear from three others that it matters to them as well.

If you care at all about journalism and why, at best, people still want to do it for a living — and I know that many people simply hate journalists and don’t trust us — go see this film!

 

South Africa's Abused Children — And The Woman Photographer Who Tells Their Stories

Herself a victim of sexual abuse, Mariella Furrer bears witness to the emotional and physical pain of these young children.

From The New York Times‘ terrific photo blog, Lens:

For more than seven years, Ms. Furrer has been involved with a project so draining that she has had to seek medical help. Photographing young victims of sexual abuse in South Africa would be difficult for anyone, but Ms. Furrer, 41, is herself a victim of sexual abuse.

“There’s just no way that you can do a project like this and not be deeply, deeply affected on every level,” she said. “Emotionally, spiritually, physically.”

As part of her project, which will be published as a book this fall, Ms. Furrer has spent much of her time observing interviews conducted by the South African police with children who reported abuse. She often posed a few questions of her own, sitting on the floor so children didn’t feel threatened or obliged to speak. If they cried, she held their hands.

DESCRIPTIONMariella Furrer A young boy cries at his classmate’s memorial service.

An estimated 50 child rapes are reported daily in South Africa, Ms. Furrer said, but children’s rights advocates activists believe the actual rate could be much higher. On an average day, she said, two to eight children visit a local police station to report abuse.

Having finished gathering material for her book, Ms. Furrer is developing a global fundraising campaign and a Web site to raise awareness of child sexual abuse. She also continues to document some of the children she has come across in South Africa.

I began my journalism career as a photographer, and still shoot for work and for pleasure; my partner is a photo editor and photographer and our home is filled with images, his, mine and some iconic ones by his former friends and colleagues, like Bernie Boston’s young man placing a flower into the barrel of a rifle or George Thames’ well-known image of President Kennedy standing in front of the Oval Office windows.

We love and value great visual journalism — as powerful, often much more —  as written.

Kids Sent Across The World, 7,000 'Forgotten Australians' Finally Get Their Apology

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A long, long way from Britain...Image via Wikipedia

Unbelievably sad story from Australia about 7,000 British, Irish and Maltese children shipped to Australia decades ago — for good. More details, from BBC, here. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd officially apologized to them yesterday, but it’s not going to heal the wounds.

It’s almost unimaginable, shipping young kids halfway around the world, never to see their families again. Some thought they were going off on a holiday. The children were abused, neglected, orphaned or in foster care, with a great new life promised them, the reason their deportation was justified at the time. But many found their new homes every bit as miserable and spent their lives wondering why they had been abandoned.