Journalism Notes: Faith in the “Spotlight”


Image courtesy of emw at Wikimedia Commons, under a Creative Commons license

With Sunday night’s Oscar win for best picture, “Spotlight,” the movie about the Boston Globe’s investigation into systemic child abuse by Catholic priests, provided renewed validation of the press’s role to hold the powerful accountable in our society.

It also offered a strong statement about the magnitude of public outrage when the people and institutions professing to provide spiritual refuge violate their sacred trust and prey upon the vulnerable.

It’s not uncommon to hear people lament the predatory predilections of the press, that it is too consumed with playing “gotcha journalism” and wantonly smearing the reputations of public figures. I’m not going to argue that doesn’t happen.

But would we rather have no one standing watch for exactly the kinds of heinous abuses of power that the Globe’s investigations uncovered? Would we rather defer blindly to the established authority of such figures and institutions, the way Boston and many other communities did during the years these victims suffered in silence?

For me, failing to protect the vulnerable is a greater sin than the needless sensationalism displayed by some media outlets and individual journalists. And if we are going to allow the press, broadly speaking, to scrutinize those holding or seeking power, then we have to accept that it, too, will at times fail this public trust. So let us hold the press accountable as well.

We all need accountability. We all need authority. Our leaders need to know they answer to us. Those who would slip secretly through the shadows, stealing innocence and scarring hearts, must be on notice: not on our watch.

On my drive into work this morning, I was listening to a podcast of Francis Chan speaking at the Urbana Student Missions Conference in December. He spoke on how the message of godly authority has become lost and misunderstood in our modern society. We may be attracted to the protection and provision of Christ, but we buck at the commands of his authority.

Because too often we have seen authority abused, because it has been a vice of the corrupt to oppress and exploit, we have difficulty understanding that God’s authority springs from his eternal love. It is not selfish; it is selfless. He does not coerce us into submission; he offers the opportunity to follow him. As Chan described, the one who calmed the storm and cast out demons invites us to come and learn from him. If we heed his authority, we are not confined by his control but rescued by his grace.

Let us also then recognize that as Christians we hold a particular accountability before God to be his faithful representatives on Earth. Our charge to bring hope and healing to a hurting world means that we are entrusted to treat the broken, the vulnerable and the searching with special care. Jesus said it would be better to tie a millstone around your neck and throw yourself into the sea than to cause one of these people to lose faith in him.

Our words and actions leave lasting impressions. The world looks at us to see how we will represent God’s authority. Will we shine his light of love and justice with honor and humility? Or will we seek our own selfish desires, regardless of the destruction to others?

Beyond all their cynicism, deeper than their wounds and their jaded pasts, people are longing for the true love of Christ. It is how we are made. Sin has separated us from relationship with God, and only Jesus can reconcile that debt. There is no greater violation of the human soul than to exploit the good news of the gospel for our own sordid gain.

The father has given the son all authority, and he has invited us to be ambassadors of that authority. Let us meet this responsibility with obedience, reverence and awe. People are watching.

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Jeff Neely

Jeff Neely is an assistant professor of journalism at The University of Tampa, where he teaches courses in newswriting, feature writing, multimedia journalism and literary journalism. His research has examined the role narrative and literary journalism can play in broadening our understanding of various issues and experiences life brings our way, from identity formation to environmental ethics. He has also studied how youth journalism programs, where young people tell their own stories and those of their peers, can help strengthen local communities. He is currently working with local non-profit outreach organizations to build a youth journalism program called Tampa Youth Voice. Prior to entering academe, Jeff worked as a writer and editor for various publications in and around the Tampa Bay area, as well as a case manager and resource development specialist for the Florida foster care system.

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  • joshuaswu commented on March 2, 2016 Reply

    Hi Jeff, great reminder/exhortation!

    As a consumer of media, I always wondered how journalists balance their responsibility of being the fourth estate and the “I just started, I need to do all of these stories that my paper/local news station needs run”. As an instructor, is that an active debate you have or hear among your students on how to balance the “I want to make a difference” imperative versus the “I need to keep my job.”

    Related to it, thinking about Spotlight (which I have not seen, but based on what I saw of events), it seems that the intrepid reporters could have only spoken truth to power because their editor was on their side and gave them freedom to pursue this story, regardless of how much it may reveal. I wonder if that is becoming the exception instead of the norm in our contemporary media landscape?

    jcneely commented on March 2, 2016 Reply

    Hi Josh,

    Absolutely! I think one thing “Spotlight” has done is bring renewed attention to the fact that good journalism takes investment. That’s a very tough thing to talk about right now in the industry (or the classroom) because news organizations are simply not as solvent as they once were. It’s why professionals, academics, consultants and think-tanks everywhere are scrambling to come up with alternative business models. But the future health of journalism as a vital social institution is going to require more than just new ways of doing business; it’s going to require a cultural commitment from all of us as consumers. We have to recognize that if we want people who are professionally committed to providing us with accurate information about the most important issues and decisions we face, then we are each going to have to invest in journalism individually. It’s why I subscribe to my local newspaper. It’s why I give to public radio. Perhaps there also needs to be some sort of top-down investment as well. (I’m thinking of models like BBC.) But whatever forms this investment takes, it’s going to require collective agreement that a free and sustainable press – the kind that tackles more than just celebrity gossip – is important to us.

    With regard to the tension between the necessary daily stories and those that are often singled out as making significant social change, this is a challenge not unique to journalism. I think many professions deal with this. I used to work in the foster care system, and many days it was hard to see how I was making a difference. Every once in a while there would be that rewarding case where you felt like you really helped make a child’s or family’s life better, but often it was just documentation, navigating bureaucracy, making sure you’d covered your butt and avoided fouling up the case. As a professor I seem to be constantly reminding myself that despite the faculty meetings that sometimes feel a complete waste of time, and despite the grumbling from grade-grubbing students, and despite the seemingly senseless hoops I have to jump through sometimes to get work published, I am doing some good. I am serving my department and my university. I am sharing from my expertise and knowledge to help educate students. I am contributing to the body of knowledge.

    I would also say that often we can’t see the significance of our work at the time we are doing it. The big stories are often a result of the mundane, routine reporting. In fact, “Spotlight” sort of points this out as well. Yes, the investigative team is to credit for doing the legwork in uncovering the scandal, but that information had been there all along. It was only when a new editor came in and looked at a routine column with a fresh set of eyes that they started digging into the story more deeply. The Chris Christie “Bridgegate” story was broken by a local reporter for a small paper just doing his job. Here’s a link ( to an MSNBC interview with that reporter.

    These are conversations I try to bring into the classroom all the time. I try to teach students the skills they need for journalism, but if that’s all I do that I’ve failed to do my job. I try to show them that their words have power. Journalism provides them with a platform to be a voice, not so much for themselves but for others, for all of us. I love these conversations. Thanks for the comment!

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