What student journalists should learn from ‘Spotlight,’ Flint water crisis


Spotlight
From left to right: Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Brian d'Arcy James in 'Spotlight.' (Open Road Films)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past few months, you should be aware that a state of emergency was declared for Flint, Michigan, in January. Over a year ago, the water supply there was contaminated when Flint River’s corrosive water caused lead from aging pipes to contaminate the water supply, causing extreme health conditions and resulting in several reported deaths.

But in case you did forget, Michael Keaton was there to remind you at Saturday night’s Screen Actors Guild Awards.

“This is for every Flint, Michigan, in the world,” said Keaton during his acceptance speech. Spotlight, his film about investigative journalists uncovering a Catholic Church molestation scandal, won the evenings award for best ensemble cast. “This is for the powerful who take advantage of the powerless.”

According to the Associated Press, Keaton continued his intense statements to reporters backstage.

“As long as there’s no one to represent not just those, but the disenfranchised everywhere — I mention it because there are a zillion Flint, Michigans, out there. Had there been a spotlight put on that, I would argue that maybe they would have been a little ahead of the situation.”

Of course, the spotlight the 64-year-old actor refers to is the team of journalists in his film who “spotlight,” or investigate, specific issues which usually involve lengthy investigative work.

 

Keaton thinks his comments might be controversial, but are they really?

It’s unfortunately a fact of life that tragedies like this happen, even with tenacious reporters on the job, and Spotlight does an excellent job of showing what it takes to right a wrong. Widely praised for it’s impeccable cast and no-frills script, the film puts the spotlight where it belongs: on the victims and their suffering, and the steps it takes to hold perpetrators responsible no matter how much time has passed.

Films about journalists often get a bad rap for being overwrought Oscar-bait — think All the King’s Men, which Mark Ruffalo starred in before his role in Spotlight. In typical Hollywood fashion, these films glorify the reporters, these ‘heroes,’ for their gruff, no-nonsense approach to just push until they get a story. While Spotlight certainly gets the job done, it is done with class, giving dignity to the real survivors and victims of the cultural tragedy which took place in Boston, Massachusetts, spanning several decades.

Is Spotlight a heroic triumph of a film? Of course.

But the key here is what is being praised, and, despite it’s award-winning ensemble cast, the biggest winner of the film is the accurate way in which writer-director Tom McCarthy portrayed investigative journalism. Rather than focusing on the characters personal lives, we see how they struggle daily with the weight of a huge issue, and the stakes are high this time. Because one thing we learn towards the end is that a key journalist at The Boston Globe, Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Keaton), had once overlooked some damning evidence against the Church and its Priests when he was an up-start.

If we want to talk about character arcs in journalism movies, a perfect example is Robinson’s quest to fix the mistake he once made. Coupled with the outrage from several other members of the small Spotlight team, notably Michael Rezendes (Ruffalo), the tone of the film is, “Why are we just now knowing about this? What have we been missing all this time?” This is made worse when a church lawyer and friend of Robinson defends himself by accusing the media of negligence.

“So I made a mistake, but where was the media when all of this was happening? Where were you?”

In light of the Flint crisis, many have come out and criticized local journalists lack of attention to environmental issues, something that might have prevented some of the devastation. Most recently, the critics include David Poulson, the associate director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism. According to a Poynter news article, Poulson blasted the local government last week before blaming reporters as well for not doing their due diligence.

“And a well-trained reporter covering local health or the environment and deeply versed in those issues may have really watch-dogged the transition from one water source to another and asked questions about required testing,” Poulson said. “Or an aggressive news organization may have even invested in independent water testing once questions arose and brought attention, testing and treatment much earlier than when it happened. That didn’t happen because, well, they don’t exist.”

Issues like this reinforce the notion that journalists are there to keep governments and officials in check. We are supposed to be the tireless watch-dogs for the “powerless.” Winning a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, as the real Spotlight team did in 2003, does not mean you’ve reached the end of the line and you’ve done all you can — it means you don’t stop, and you keep riding that train to see where it takes you. Advocacy journalism, and objective journalists who are not willing to sweep an issue under the rug for the sake of biases, is a rule, not a suggestion.

Journalists can never hang up the hammer after a “job well done.”

Follow Sara Snoddy on Twitter at @Sara_Snoddy.

For more stories and updates, follow us at www.mtsusidelines.com, on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter/Instagram at @Sidelines_Life.

To contact Lifestyles editor Tanner Dedmon email lifestyles@mtsusidelines.com.

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