The Oscars put the spotlight on “Spotlight” and on news reporting about religion

GetReligion readers are well aware that quality news reporting in the print media, and investigative reporting, are continually sliding in America due to shrinking news holes, budgets and staffing. Nostalgia aside, this has obvious negative consequences for a republic.

On Sunday, Hollywood did its bit to boost the news biz by giving the best picture Oscar to the must-see “Spotlight,” correctly regarded as the best movie depiction ever of real newspaper work. The film, of course, depicts The Boston Globe effort that exposed the extent of Catholic priests’ sexual molestation in the area archdiocese thanks to shoe-leather fieldwork and documents gained by a strategic lawsuit and a state judge’s edict.

Let’s admit that the entertainment business will not weep over travail that afflicts Catholicism. However that should not obscure the fact that the entire church and its parishoners owe a deep debt to the Globe team for unearthing accurate information.

Along with the hurrahs, religion reporters and other news people should reflect on lessons to be learned from this episode. Put bluntly, where were the mainstream news media prior to the Globe’s 2002 publication? There’s a good article waiting to be written in coming days about who gave how much coverage and when.

Some analysts imply that nobody did much of anything prior to the Globe extravaganza. Not so. The Associated Press faithfully supplied the nationwide press corps with coverage, outrage by outrage. There were good articles in the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Time and elsewhere.

Yet truth is, while local dailies did their duty the national “mainstream” print media (that pretty much set the agenda for TV and radio news) failed to provide sufficient, sweeping examinations with dramatic display about the over-all Catholic abuse syndrome, as opposed to this or that individual case. Let me make this personal: The Religion Guy shares in the guilt as Time’s longtime religion writer.

Another lesson here is that the “mainstream” journalists need to pay close attention to religious periodicals that are independent of institutional control or  dedicated to reportage rather than public relations. Big news and major trends can show up in "religious" periodicals.

BULLETIN: The National Catholic Reporter of Kansas City, Mo., anticipated the Globe’s scoop by 17 full years, on June 7, 1985, as reporter Jason Berry reminds us.

Scrappy NCR publisher Thomas Fox funded freelancer Berry’s coverage of a Louisiana scandal along with a courageous alternative weekly, the Times of Arcadiana. Significantly, Berry’s story pitches had earlier been rejected by The Nation, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. NCR Editor Arthur Jones ran Berry’s piece with his own highly significant survey of depredations nationwide.

One aspect was that newswriters found the whole business repellent and hated to delve into the muck. The Religion Guy knows of three top-notch secular press religion experts who quit the beat partly because this disheartening story never ended.  Weariness aside, another factor was that NCR was avowedly liberal, continually taking church authorities, traditions and teachings to task. Presumably mainstream reporters were wary of looking like partisan bishop-bashers.

Liberal Catholic or not, Berry’s  reflections carry weight.

Pondering the hierarchy’s sluggish or inexcusable handling of the abuse crisis last year, he said this  resulted from “institutional lying. The celibate culture accustomed to forgiving clerics’ sexual secrets with adults extended the tolerance to abuse of children.” Berry thinks the church’s “monarchical form of government” clashed  with two pillars of democracy, non-partisan courts and a free press. “Without a strong press, church officials will always be tempted to hide behind secrecy.”

As seasoned religion writers well know, Berry’s admonitions apply to all religious institutions, not just official Catholicism.

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