Journalists Should Not Get Too Chummy With the Establishment

Matt Caroll, part of the original Boston Globe team that worked on the child molestation stories, shown in the recent film Spotlight, says media companies should take investigative journalism seriously

Reporters should not get too close to people they are talking to or reporting on, “because they are not our friends,” says Matt Carroll, who was part of the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-winning team of investigative journalists that inspired the film Spotlight.

It is a constant worry and fear in every media organisation — that journalists tend to “get too close and chummy” to people. “It starts right at the reporter level and goes all the way up to the editor and publisher level,” he said in an interview to The Wire.

Those with the role of speaking truth to power should remain vigilant against it, he says. “It was an accusation that was levelled against the Globe as well. Why did it take so long for the Globe to tell that story of child molestation by Catholic priests and the cover up by the Church? It took an outsider like Marty Baron to come in and say you know what, this is a big story, we should go after it.” The emphasis he places on maintaining a distance — with sources and with the rich and mighty is really at the heart of how Spotlight’s powerful investigation eventually became possible.

Carroll, who is currently a research scientist at the MIT’s media lab, was the data geek in the Boston Globe Spotlight team and has been doing data journalism for years, well before it became as popular. Over a decade after the actual story was published, it is gratifying to see it retold in a film, he says. And he seems more than pleased with Brian d’Arcy James’s portrayal of him. Repeatedly in interviews Carroll has observed how “he does me better than I do me.”

Good news for journalism

Matt Carroll at his desk

Matt Carroll at his desk

Spotlight and, more recently, its Oscar win comes as good news for journalism. Especially at a time when the line between news and opinion is blurring in many newsrooms, when news organisations feel compelled to privilege breaking news and exclusives over every other function and when media trials dominate primetime news segments on television, the story of Spotlight is a stark reminder of the value of sustained, rigorous field reporting.

Journalists who have seen the film would have related to the very realistic portrayal of newsrooms, deadline pressures and mood swings of reporters and editors. The manner in which reporters are shown pursuing their sources, doing their research or making telephone calls endlessly also showed us that fine difference between persistent and being aggressive.

Being focused and following a story could be very time-consuming and tedious, but that has enormous value, he says. Pointing to the “constant pull, push and pressure” in news organisations today, fewer reporters are expected to do a lot more work, especially after the economic crisis of the news industry, he observes. “Most editors want their reporters to do the daily stuff, and then they are expected to tweet, get audios, videos and so on. News organisations have to make sure their reporters don’t burn out.”

While newsrooms increasingly believe it is no longer worth maintaining teams exclusively for investigative journalism, Carroll thinks there is enough reason for the media to take it seriously. “It is investigative reporting that makes a news organisation stand out. Probing a particular issue and bringing to light what needs to be brought to light – that’s really more important than being the first to tweet about something.”

Spotlight may prompt at least some newsrooms to consider putting together such a team, particularly given how the story had an impact world over. “The story started in January 2002 and frankly, it’s a story that has never really stopped. It keeps continuing to go on either with people at the Globe working on it and other people around the world,” says Carroll, who finds it “astonishing” in retrospect. He also recalls thoroughly enjoying the collaborative effort. “There was so much camaraderie!”

A seasoned data journalist, Carroll says the scope for telling stories through numbers has grown enormously. “You have great tools for visualisation of data – that wasn’t possible some years ago. Also, you have a lot more data available now.”

After over 25 years at the Boston Globe, Carroll currently runs the future of news initiative at MIT’s media lab and researches new tools and technologies for storytelling. Much has changed in the news industry from the time he started reporting for the newspaper in 1987, and he is trying to embrace all of that. But if there is one thing that hasn’t changed, it is his firm belief in actual, ground-reporting.

“There is no substitute to old-fashioned reporting. Even today, if I can do a face-to-face [interview], I would do that any time [over a telephone interview]. You just pick up so much more.”

(Meera Srinivasan is the IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow 2015-16)