On Wednesday, April 6, The Colgate Maroon-News hosted investigative journalist Sacha Pfeiffer for a moderated Q&A in Love Auditorium as part of the Milmoe Workshop in Journalism.
Pfeiffer was a member of The Boston Globe Spotlight investigative team that uncovered and reported extensively on clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church in 2002. Pfeiffer and the Spotlight Team won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003 for their work. With the exception of a seven-year hiatus at NPR, Pfeiffer has been a reporter for The Boston Globe since 1995 and currently writes about wealth, philanthropy and nonprofits.
The Q&A session began by Pfeiffer showing the trailer for the 2015 film Spotlight, which tells the story of how Pfeiffer and her coworkers investigated and broke the clergy sex abuse scandal. The film won the 2016 Academy Award for Best Motion Picture. As the clip played, Pfeiffer looked up at the screen, watching actress Rachel McAdams ask survivors, lawyers and clergy the same questions she did in 2001.
Pfeiffer said she was originally uncomfortable with the idea of her team’s project being adapted to a movie. Not only was she apprehensive about how Hollywood might sensationalize the story, she was also concerned about the story’s grim topic. But Hollywood proved her wrong.
Director Tom McCarthy and screenwriter Josh Singer let the journalists vet the script to ensure it was as realistic as possible. The journalists also spent a lot of time with their actors.
“It was funny because we thought it was kind of social,” Pfeiffer said. “Not until we watched the movie did we realize that all that time had been research for them, like we were being studied and analyzed and observed, because we began to see mannerisms – our mannerisms – depicted on screen, including some mannerisms we didn’t know we had.”
“I thought it was incredibly accurate,” she said of the movie. “They took appropriate dramatic licenses by putting phone conversations in bars and parks and golf courses.”
One scene in particular shows a group meeting with the editors and reporters near the end of the investigation. That meeting never actually took place, Pfeiffer explained, but the editor-in-chief’s dialogue in that scene comes directly from an email he wrote to the Spotlight Team in real life.
One billboard in the movie was photoshopped, Pfeiffer said, but with good reason. The filmmakers strategically placed a dated AOL advertisement just next to The Boston Globe’s parking lot in order to remind people just how basic the Internet was at the time.
Senior Justin LoScalzo found this particularly interesting.
“Ms. Pfeiffer discuss[ed] how the emergence of new media, particularly the Internet, would have influenced the Spotlight Team,” LoScalzo said. “She explained how having access to a more developed Internet would have eased researching the story and allowed them to disseminate it to a more widespread audience at a faster rate.”
But having access to a more advanced Internet would have resulted in disadvantages, too.
“Today, it would have been much harder to delay publishing. The competitive pressure would have been much more intense.”
Pfeiffer explained that the digital age has increased demand for content, which puts pressure on newspapers to publish stories faster.
Faster doesn’t always mean better when it comes to investigative journalism. In the movie, the Spotlight Team’s editor, Robby, explains to the Globe’s new Editor-in-Chief Marty Baron that Spotlight can sometimes take months picking a new story. This is because, Pfeiffer said, there is a checklist of elements that make for a powerful and financially justifiable Spotlight story.
“Robby, my old boss, calls it ‘digging dry wells,’” Pfeiffer said. “Sometimes you just have to go down the road for a little bit to figure out: Is there a story there? Is it large enough? Can we get the information? Can we prove that it’s true? Can we find documents? Can we find people who will talk to us? That’s a tough process.”
Pfeiffer explained that the Spotlight story was made bulletproof, reinforced by documentation proving that authority figures in the Catholic Church were aware of and actively covering up sexual abuse. In addition to this documentation, the Spotlight Team interviewed many victims of those crimes.
Pfeiffer stated she believes her gender may be one of the reasons she ended up interviewing more survivors than her male colleagues; possibly, she said, the victims she interviewed felt more comfortable opening up to a woman.
“Sexual abuse is a very traumatic thing, especially at that age, and especially if it’s a priest where there’s this power dynamic and the religious aspect,” she said.
Junior Karra Puccia was struck by Pfeiffer’s remarks about being a respectful interviewer when speaking to survivors of this kind of sexual assault.
“[Pfeiffer] said that a good interview should be like a conversation, and I just love that piece of advice because it sounds like it goes a long way when interviewing people about very sensitive and personal topics,” Puccia said.
Students attended Pfeiffer’s Q&A session for a number of reasons – interests in journalism, film studies and issues of sexual assault, as well as affiliation with the Catholic Church, to name a few. University Chaplain and Catholic Campus Minister Mark Shiner came to thank Pfeiffer for her role in uncovering the abuse.
“The clergy sexual abuse scandal has been the single biggest self-inflicted wound on the Catholic Church in the United States, and understanding how it all came to pass is key to understanding how to deal with it in the present and the future,” Shiner said. “I remember the articles in the Globe when they were coming out, and I was both very sad and very impressed when I saw their work. So, I came to the event to understand more, to gain some insight and to personally thank Pfeiffer for her work.”
Although this project angered and saddened her, Pfeiffer said, it did not turn her off from journalism.
“I think it made me love my job even more because it reminded me how powerful it can be…This may sound cliché, but it truly reminded me of the importance of questioning authority,” she said.
“Churches, religious organizations, nonprofits – they’re all run by people, they all have politics and bureaucracy, which means they can all do things wrong…Don’t let there be sacred cows. Don’t ever be afraid to ask tough questions of powerful institutions,” Pfeiffer said.