Two years ago, Michael Rezendes was catapulted from the small, dank room where the Spotlight team of The Boston Globe worked, to the global stage of the 88th Academy Awards, when the film Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy, won the Oscar for Best Picture. It charted the journey undertaken by Rezendes (played by Mark Ruffalo) and his fellow journalists as they exposed child sexual abuse in Boston area’s Catholic churches, earning them the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service in 2003. At the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival, Rezendes held forth on sessions about the challenges of investigative journalism in an increasingly digitised newsroom. Excerpts from an interview:
How much has your life changed after Spotlight (2015) came out?
Well, I was sure I wouldn’t have been invited to literary festivals such as this one, if we had not published our series of stories on the cases of child sexual abuse by several Roman Catholic priests in the Boston area in 2002. So, I’m grateful for that and it’s a pleasure to be here. The other way that my life has changed is that I get a lot more tips than I used to. The film might have blown my cover, but I get a lot more interesting stories my way now, which might not have come my way otherwise. People are suggesting legitimate stories about their grievances and the problems with the institutions they are dealing with.
The last time you were in India, for a media conference in 2017, you were wrapping up a series that you described as “tragic” and that had made you unhappy. What was it about?
That was my investigation into a state prison called Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts. The problem with this institution is that it was for people who were mentally ill, but it was run by prison guards who had no training in how to deal with them, and often became violent. So now, all the prison guards have been moved out, and replaced by mental health clinicians, and people who are trained in de-escalation tactics, and can calm the inmates down when they feel agitated, and are potentially violent. They had something called the Intensive Treatment Unit, but essentially, it was the “Intensive Torture Unit”. Now, it’s shut down. I wrote probably 30 stories in the course of three years. I wrote the first story in 2014, and the reforms were announced exactly a year ago.
Investigative reporting is a long journey from finding the truth, telling it, and hoping for accountability, isn’t it?
Yes, follow-up is very important. You just can’t give up on that, you’ve got to keep at it. I think the consequences of speaking truth to power are much more serious in other countries than in the US. We’re suffering much more financially because we don’t have the advertising we used to have before the internet. The threat the American media faces right now is more economic.
Most investigative reporting deals with difficult subjects — trauma, corruption and fraud. Why do you think people still want to read these long-form stories?
We have these metrics now where all the stories from The Boston Globe are on our website, and we can tell at any moment, exactly how many people are on the website, which stories are being read the most, and the average amount of time a reader spends on a particular story. So, we know what people are reading, and what triggers our subscriptions; we have data that we never had before. And people love the Spotlight stories, they are subscribing to read them. Even though the newspaper has half as many reporters as we did 15 years ago (450 then, a little over 200 now), we’ve doubled the size of the Spotlight team (from four to eight reporters). Instead of putting out one or two stories a year, we’re putting out six. Part of the reason is altruistic, we feel this fulfills our public mission but investigative reporting is now a revenue source, and I hope editors and publishers all over the world understand that.
What is it like to report in the Trump era, under a President who goes on about “fake news”?
This is also a President who has called the media “the enemy of the American people”. In the US, I think President Donald Trump has inspired journalists, and in a way, has triggered a golden age in investigative reporting. But my concern about Trump’s rhetoric is what happens outside the United States, in countries where reporters really take risks. I think when authoritarian rulers see the President of the United States declare open season on the press, reporters in those countries suddenly see themselves in prison, or possibly, even killed. So, Trump’s rhetoric is felt more acutely in other countries, because he sets the tone in a way.