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Posts Tagged ‘investigative journalism’

If you were a journalist and you stayed up to the end of the Oscars ceremony, you had to feel uplifted by the Best-Picture Oscar for “Spotlight.” After seeing the film in November, I wrote two posts on the movie about the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting on sexual abuse by priests. Those links are at the end of this post, but first a few fresh thoughts on the “Spotlight” win:

    • As I noted on Twitter after the win, many East Coast newspapers (and probably even some in Central Time) have deadlines too early to get the newspaper movie’s win into their morning editions today. (The Advocate, our local paper here, did get the Best-Picture results in a story on Page 5A and a page-one reefer.) I sure hope the Globe was able to hold its print edition long enough to trumpet the news to its print readers.advocate spotlight
    • While the much-deserved praise for the Globe’s journalism is welcome balm to a weary profession and industry, equally big news for the Globe the past few months has been its difficulty delivering the print edition to subscribers. Cost-cutting at many newspaper companies has prompted outsourcing of functions such as delivery and customer service. And often that goes badly. The Globe’s delivery issues have drawn the most attention, but I know dozens of newspapers that have dealt with similar problems, alienating loyal print readers while still struggling to make money with weak digital products.
    • However much disruption the media business endures, we need to maintain our commitment to investigative journalism. Like the Globe, news organizations need to tell untold stories and hold the powerful accountable.
    • Sunday night was a great night of recognition for sexual abuse survivors, who usually struggle privately and silently. Joe Biden’s introduction and Lady Gaga’s stirring rendition of “Til It Happens to You” were probably the highlight of the show, even though the song didn’t win an Oscar.

Here are my two posts from last year after I watched “Spotlight”:

‘Spotlight’: a generation-later echo of ‘All the President’s Men’

Responding to ‘Spotlight’: Advice for investigating sexual abuse by clergy

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Headline from a 2002 story for the Omaha World-Herald

Headline from a 2002 story for the Omaha World-Herald

I can’t imagine how uncomfortable it would be for survivors of sexual abuse by priests to watch “Spotlight.” It was plenty uncomfortable for me as a reporter who merely had the unpleasant job of interviewing survivors and telling their stories.

I saw “Spotlight” last weekend and comment on the movie in a separate post. My point here will be to share lessons I learned in my own experience covering sexual abuse by priests and other religious leaders both before and after the 2002 Boston Globe stories that inspired “Spotlight.”

I don’t mean by any of this to compare my work to the heroic work of the Globe’s Spotlight team. While I was writing about sexual abuse by an abusive priest, and an archdiocese moving a pedophile from church to church, more than three years before the Globe’s story, I didn’t nail the story of institutional cover-up that they did. Much of my later reporting was prompted by the national public response to the Globe’s reporting.

I hope that “Spotlight” doesn’t generate a similar outpouring of stories of abuse. I hope that they’ve all been told and that the Catholic church has rid itself of the sin and crime that it was hiding.

Lasting trauma inflicted by priestFirst an overview of my experience in covering religious sexual abuse: Starting in the 1990s, I investigated sexual abuse by at least nine Catholic priests that I can recall, plus at least one Protestant minister, a leader of a Christian cult and a group-home counselor at a Catholic youth services organization. In most cases, I interviewed multiple survivors of abuse by the powerful men I investigated. I’m sure I talked to at least 20 survivors of sexual abuse by clergy and the counselor, usually in person but a few times by phone. Other survivors that I learned about would not talk to me. I interviewed two accused molesters.

I almost certainly am forgetting other clergy that I investigated. The stories run together in my memory, and I don’t have time or interest to dig through my old stories to refresh and clarify some of the most disgusting memories of my career. Watching the movie and writing this blog post were disturbing enough.

I am not going to name priests, victims or specific organizations here. To do so would require research to update their status, and I don’t want to do that, both because of the time it would take and because all the stories are more than a decade old. I don’t want to track down and bother the courageous survivors who were my sources then. My interviews disturbed many of them at the time, and I have no interest in inflicting new pain by publishing their names again or updating their current situations.

This blog post is illustrated with headlines from the stories I wrote about these cases more than a decade ago. In a couple of instances, I have cut off the last word or two of a headline to leave out the priest’s name.

Here are my lessons about covering abuse by clergy and others with power over children and adolescents (shared in the hope this topic never again needs to be as big a story as it was back then):

Find other victims of the same predator

Priest Sexual abuse was reported years ago

A key to proving patterns of abuse is finding multiple victims of one abuser. A pedophile invariably has a pattern of abuse: techniques for “grooming” a potential victim before the abuse starts; introducing sex to the relationship by use of pornography or sex talk or nudity in a seemingly non-sexual way, such as showering on campouts or in locker rooms; similar ways of starting and accelerating the molestation; favorite sexual activities; silencing the victim with rewards, conspiratorial secrecy, shaming and/or intimidation. (more…)

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The gatekeeper days of journalism were fun. But they’re over. And they weren’t as good as we remember them.

In a Facebook discussion today, Arkansas State journalism professor Jack Zibluk wrote, “By abandoning the gatekeeper role, I believe you are abandoning the profession.”

I replied: “Jack, no one abandoned the gatekeeper role. It became irrelevant when the fences blew away.”

Jack asked me to elaborate:

If journalism and journalists are no longer gatekeepers, then what ARE we? Nobody I know of has made a cohesive explanation of what our role is any more in society.

I initially begged off, saying I might blog about gatekeepers in a week or two. But another gatekeeper discussion on Jack’s Facebook wall and an exchange of private Facebook messages prompted me to blog now.

I used to be a gatekeeper, the person who decided which of the many potential stories my reporters at the Des Moines Register and Kansas City Star and Times could do would become news back in the 1980s and early 1990s. As editor of the Minot Daily News, I had the final say on every news story for our North Dakota town (and let’s be honest: beyond breaking news, a newspaper editor largely is the gatekeeper for local TV stations, too). Keeping the gate was a serious responsibility: We got to decide what was news and what wasn’t, what was front-page news, what was an inside brief and what wasn’t worth our readers’ time at all. We had to decide when a story was vetted and verified enough to make it through the gate.  (more…)

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I bow to no one in my love for the good old days of journalism. But everyone trying to take journalism back to the good old days should understand some basic truths:

  • You won’t find the future by retreating to the past.
  • Whatever comes next in journalism can’t and shouldn’t be built to replace either the best or worst of current or historic journalism. You build the future on the technology and opportunities of the future in the context of the future.
  • Watchdog reporting performed by professional journalists is absolutely part of journalism’s future, and I don’t know anyone discussing the future of journalism who doesn’t plan and hope for a successful future for professional watchdog reporting.
  • Journalism of the past doesn’t look as strong on closer examination as it does through your nostalgic filter.

I worked at the Des Moines Register in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Time magazine named it one of the 10 best newspapers in the United States. I was there when Jim Risser won his second Pulitzer Prize and when Tom Knudson wrote the series that won his first Pulitzer. I was there when our coverage of the 1980 and 1984 Iowa caucuses made us an important player in national political coverage. If someone had a magic wand to turn back the clock to the early 1980s, I would be sorely tempted to wave that wand and throw over my current career with Digital First Media. It all looks so rosy through the glasses of nostalgia.

But if I waved that wand, I would have to relive the death of the Des Moines Tribune, the afternoon newspaper our company folded in 1982. And I would relive the disappointment and embarrassment that the journalists of that day did not shine the light brightly enough to prevent the savings and loan crisis that rocked the economy and cost the taxpayers more than $100 billion.

Nostalgia is fun and it’s warm, and for journalists today, it’s seductive and dangerous. (more…)

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