In its 51-year history, the Boston Globe Spotlight Team has disclosed clergy sex abuse, failings within the MBTA, and exposure to deadly radiation at a Portsmouth shipyard, as well as shining a light on racial inequity, among dozens of investigations.
Three Spotlight alumni and the current editor — Stephen Kurkjian, Dick Lehr, Michael Rezendes, and Patricia Wen — discussed the team’s impact on Greater Boston and the future of investigative journalism with GBH radio host Jim Braude Friday, as part of the inaugural Boston Globe summit, which was held virtually Wednesday through Friday showcasing national thinkers, speakers, and local leaders on pressing issues of our time.
“It is an institution within an institution,” said Wen, a former Spotlight reporter and its editor since 2017.
Braude began by asking the group how investigative journalism has changed in the past half-century by relying less on undercover reporting and similar tools of deception.
Lehr, who reported on infamous gangster Whitey Bulger and later wrote books about him, said those practices should still be in journalists’ toolbox. But Rezendes countered: “We should not have to be dishonest to prove dishonesty.”
Wen said deceptive practices are sometimes the only way to get to the root of a problem.
In Spotlight’s 2017 investigation into race issues, she said, the team created falsified Gmail accounts using names associated with white and Black people — such as Brendan Weber and Keisha Jackson — to uncover the practice of housing discrimination.
“We can’t get to the truth of it without that deception,” she said. “So there was a legitimate reason.”
The four journalists agreed that the function of investigative reporting is as essential today as it was decades ago, even as the industry evolves.
“In today’s political environment, getting the truth is very hard,” Wen said. “Obviously, we have more tools in our toolbox. There’s more data [and] technology. But I also think that people who have something to hide are more sophisticated about how to hide it.”
Rezendes added that today’s reporters face the task of having to wade through mounds of misinformation and altered videos.
Braude asked why teams like Spotlight do not exist in every newsroom.
“A lot of it is the resources, which have diminished in so many places,” said Lehr, noting the money that is essential to funding investigations that take months or years. Reporters in other newsrooms, Lehr said, may be required to jump on essential stories.
Rezendes said that former Globe executive editor Marty Baron once calculated that the investigation of sex abuse within the Catholic Church cost the paper $1 million. Baron launched the project shortly after he was hired in 2001.
Being given the time to focus on one story over a long period of time is a luxury, the journalists said.
Spotlight sifts through hundreds of online and mail tips when choosing a story, said Wen while holding up a bag of letters she had picked up at the office.
Lehr said the team determines a minimum benchmark when choosing a topic in an effort to validate the time they spend reporting and writing. “Things don’t always pan out,” Lehr said. “But that way, we have a story.”
Then, the process of grabbing readers’ attention during a 5,000-word takedown begins.
“If it’s not written beautifully, no one is going to read it,” Rezendes said. “And if people don’t read it, what’s the point?”
According to Kurkjian, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner for his reporting on clergy sex abuse, widespread corruption among Somerville officials, and the Boston transit system, the most fulfilling aspect is the ability to instigate change.
“You get to use that first amendment, that freedom of the press, in such a creative and important way,” he said. “It’s not the front page stories that are going to cause the biggest impact with Spotlight. It’s the scandals you prevent.”
The journalists also reflected on their most memorable experience on the team.
Kurkjian remembered speaking with workers at risk at the Portsmouth shipyard five decades ago.
Lehr conjured the moment Spotlight found out Bulger maintained a special relationship with the FBI, a discovery that “reoriented the city’s history in a moment.”
And Rezendes recalled when he found out that the Catholic Church had assigned a known serial abuser to work among altar boys.
They strive, they said, to improve the lives of those in their namesake region.
“It would be the ideal Spotlight project if you can see some consequence of what you’re going to do,” Wen said.
That sometimes means legislative change, she said, and other times, it translates into widespread awareness of an issue.
What if the story doesn’t incite change?, Braude asked.
“We just pick ourselves up,” Rezendes answered, “and get ready for the next one.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of Pulitzers Kurkjian has received.