Monday, March 14, 2016

Notes on Spotlight

Last night AKSARBENT saw Spotlight, the story of the Boston Globe's exposure of comparatively widespread — and concealed — child molestation in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.
     Movies about reporters aren't intrinsically compelling and we don't think the film was 2015's best picture, as did The Academy, but it fascinated us, was occasionally thrilling, and certainly deserves your money, if only to encourage Hollywood to make more adult films and fewer badly-scripted video game extravaganzas.
     As is our mission around here, we shall now correct a misconception, popular in some quarters, that this was a film about good old ink-stained wretches doggedly speaking truth to power in the old-fashioned way via a milieu that the Internet is slowly eating alive.
     Pay attention to the movie! It isn't as old-fashioned as you've been told.
     The Globe got the goods on the bad padres and their enablers by being early adopters of the big new thing in investigative journalism — database reporting.
     Nowadays you would probably call it data mining reporting, as newspapers are siccing their tech hires on existing databases and looking for anomalies — and attendant chicanery, negligence or theft or what have you. USA Today has broken several major front page exposes doing just this thing.
     The Boston Globe didn't have an existing database for its crack "Spotlight" investigative team to comb, so it created its own, with the names of priests identified in church records as being on sabbatical, or absent or sick or any of the common euphemisms used to camouflage the real reason they were removed from their posts.
     Said database turned up out-of-commission priests, and easily drilled down into the subset of that group which had a history of uncommonly short assignment durations — and frequent absences.
     It was the computer, like a pig rooting for  truffles, that first fingered the lion's share — 87 vs. the 9 that the reporter/protagonists first suspected — of the pedophiles that the Church was shifting around every time they got caught.
     There's obviously no substitute for knowing your beat, having contacts and getting out to talk to people. But it's now microprocessors and software that can show you the patterns and first smell the rat, sometimes even before you're looking for anything hinky.
     Our advice to aspiring reporters: take a college class in relational database management and data conversion.


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