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SATURDAY SOAPBOX

Turning a Spotlight on the truth

Journalists toil away because some stories do make a difference

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Spotlight reminds us of what journalism can do to enlighten a generation when it decides to hold truth up as the highest standard, and be not a respecter of power, but also of the lowly and the silent.

Singapore

IT CAN be self-congratulatory to watch a movie about journalists living up to the profession's ideal as the Fourth Estate. I left the cinema feeling incredibly important, almost heroic.

But more than that, Oscar-nominated and critically acclaimed Spotlight was cathartic for me, because it was so good to watch someone else who wasn't me being the pest for once, with their relentless questions and almost obsessive note-taking (even if the instrument of choice has since moved from notepads to iPads.)

Spotlight tells the true story of how a small investigative team at the Boston Globe uncovered the massive child sex abuse cases and their cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese in Boston.

In the movie, the little nuggets injected for journalistic realism struck a chord with me: characters draped in the time-honoured tradition of sloppy dressing; the apologetic chuckle of a newsmaker when asked an awkward question that they cannot or prefer not to answer.

But above all, it was satisfying to see the reporters struggle and persevere till their eventual triumph, when the story they had slaved over for months finally hit the news stands. I shared the triumph, if only vicariously.

People say insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results. In which case, reporters must be insane by the number of times they try to pry, only to repeatedly receive a "decline to comment" response.

I empathise with the frustration of the reporters when they interrogate lawyers who cannot talk freely about the work they do for clients. I've sometimes wished I could read minds just to cross that hurdle. I've never understood how lawyers can remain so calm while knowing so much, when every new piece of information I learn can send me into a frenzy.

There also comes a point when reporters start to care too much about a story, or when our emotions get tangled with the subject at hand.

There may even be a self-righteousness about it: "I just want to tell the truth and do the right thing", as opposed to admitting that part of it is also our incurable nosiness. I watched the movie, and felt all that.

They say there is a type that journalism attracts: the peculiar type. When I look around my newsroom, I kind of agree. The other day, a tennis ball whizzed past my head, because two colleagues were playing long-distance Catch. Another editor plays imaginary golf by his desk. I heard another used to stir his coffee with his pen, which led to health complications later in life.

But these peculiarities belie a certain drive. My university lecturer, today still a correspondent with Reuters, told us that journalists are among the most self-motivated people among all professions. I believe it, and witness it every day in my newsroom.

I know not everyone likes journalists, and some blatantly show it.

I remember a recent Raffles Conversation column in The Business Times featuring bestselling author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who writes books on randomness, probability and uncertainty like The Black Swan.

Mr Taleb told my colleague that journalists belong to that unfortunate lot with economists, bankers and academics that he holds particular dislike for, because they have no "skin in the game". They are opinion makers who prognosticate and are not held to account for their views, while those who invest on their views take on all the risk and downside.

He saved a special spot for investigative journalists though, along with soldiers and entrepreneurs, whom he favours because they have "soul in the game".

I remember not disagreeing with him after I read it. I sometimes think journalists are like atheists, a voice of self-declared objectivity, free to critique every system and sector out there because it has no real convictions of its own.

Perhaps Mr Taleb thinks investigative journalists are a different breed because they are more risk-taking in their reporting, with more to lose if their story is not accurate, but with real and frightening potential for change if their story is true.

It's not easy being a journalist these days: with readership falling, and the Internet taking away both advertising and subscriber dollars, job cuts are real.

In fact, the movie Spotlight depicted Boston Globe at one of its most glorious periods.

Fast forward eight years to 2009, its parent firm, The New York Times Company, had threatened to close the paper if its unions did not agree to US$20 million of cost savings, including cutting union employees' pay and ending pension contributions.

The Globe was eventually sold in 2013 to Boston Red Sox principal owner John W Henry for US$70 million. In recent times, we've seen similar newspaper sales with The Washington Post and The Financial Times.

In dire times like these, a movie like Spotlight reminds me of the ideals that first made journalists want to become journalists.

It reminds us of what journalism can do to enlighten a generation when it decides to hold truth up as the highest standard, and be not a respecter of power, but also of the lowly and the silent.

"We spend most of our time stumbling in the dark," said Liev Schreiber who played the Globe's new editor Martin Baron in the film.

We write stories every day, never knowing which one is symptomatic of something bigger. But we all toil in the hope of finding that one story that is worth all the trouble to tell.