By Michael Rizzo
The recent Best Picture win by the movie Spotlight at the 2016 Academy Awards was a feather in the cap for its cast, crew and producers. It was also a chance to draw attention in journalism classes to a headline that students knew about, through traditional or social media, which aligned popular culture and news reporting.
After I brought up Spotlight in my classes at St. Johns University, I found that students perked up at wanting to talk or ask about the film. It also prompted me to think about how to better apply the movie’s content to the journalism I was helping them to learn.
“I was 5 years old when this came out,” one student in my Reporting for Print & Online course said. And then she added she wanted to know more about what the film’s characters did as journalists.
That was a common theme: what the journalists did. The students who saw the movie were excited to talk about how the characters knocked on doors, dug into books (books!) for research and tenaciously sought to interview persons related to the story before they sat down to write. The students that were now curious to see the movie asked about how it reflects real investigative reporting.
“I heard about it last summer but never got to see it,” a sophomore said, “but it’s a win for journalists. People don’t always respect the profession of journalism but this might lead to more respect.”
This same student assured me she never heard the words of one of the movie’s producers, Blye Pagon Faust, who spoke after the movie’s win and had thoughts similar to that of my student.
“We would not be here today without the heroic efforts of our reporters,” Faust said. She added that there was also a “necessity for investigative journalism.”
So how do we, as faculty trying to impart good journalistic skills to students, use the attention the movie has garnered towards our work?
One is to use the film’s success to open up discussion on the broader issues of modern journalism. We have a 3 hour course once a week at St. John’s that has students watching films that deal with journalism. Spotlight is now a part of that course. Other movies include All The President’s Men, Shattered Glass and Absence of Malice that explore themes from journalistic ethics and how the news media succeeds (or falters).
But the shorter length of our other classes, 85 minute sessions that meet twice a week, make watching a full movie in one gathering problematic. There are, however, other options.
One is to play the movie’s shorter promotional trailers, videos and cast interviews in class to open a conversation. Another is to apply the flipped classroom concept where students watch the film on their own with guidelines from the professor on what to look for and then interact about it afterwards in the classroom. Finally, there’s the option to review the original reporting from the Globe in 2002.
I also set up the ensuing discussion sessions like editorial meetings where thoughts need to be followed up with concrete story ideas.
The aim is to foster the curiosity and understanding about who is doing good journalism, what they’re reporting on and how those stories are written, or told, in an engaging way. Then students apply that knowledge as good modeling for their own work.
The topic reported on by the Globe revealed horrific actions. But perhaps Academy members
voted for the film because of how it showed the hard work of journalists as much as for its overall dramatic presentation.
As one teaching colleague told me, this reminds him of reading Dan Rather’s The Camera Never Blinks and feeling inspired as he prepared to move to a small market TV station for an on-air reporting job.
The Academy’s stamp of approval on Spotlight is a modern day chance to inspire a new generation of future journalists.
Michael Rizzo is an Assistant Professor and Director, Journalism Program, St. John’s University, Queens, NY and former Executive Director for News and Sports at ABC News Radio. He is RTDNA's State Coordinator for New York.