‘Spotlight’-ing a news library

Spotlight (2015), the Best Picture winner from this year’s Academy Awards, focuses on the Spotlight team of reporters who, in 2002, published a series of stories about Catholic priests who, for decades, had been sexually abusing children in their parishes. Spotlight also won the Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Screenplay and was nominated for four other Oscars.

The film’s spotlight (har har) is on the months of investigative reporting that led to the publication of the initial story in January 2002, as the reporters went from investigating one priest, John J. Geoghan, to uncovering a decades-long cover-up from the Catholic Church. That first story, which you can read here, led to hundreds more stories, across the United States and around the world, as the film’s closing cards reveal. It also led to a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003 for the Boston Globe‘s Spotlight team, “for its courageous, comprehensive coverage of sexual abuse by priests, an effort that pierced secrecy, stirred local, national and international reaction and produced changes in the Roman Catholic Church.”

The Spotlight team was Mike Rezendes (played by Mark Ruffalo, in an Oscar-nominated performance), Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (played by Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (played by Rachel McAdams, also an Oscar-nominated performance), and Matt Carroll (played by Brian d’Arcy James).

Fifteen minutes into the film, we get our first glimpse into the newspaper archives and library research team.

Reel Librarians | News librarian in 'Spotlight' (2015)

News librarian in ‘Spotlight’ (2015)

Spotlight news reporter Matt drops off an info request to Lisa Tuite, the head of the news library. Lisa (played by Michele Proude) is sitting behind a desk and typing on a computer, and you can see shelves and shelves of files and boxes in the background.

Matt:  Hey Lisa. Could you pull all the relevant clips on that for me?

Lisa:  Yeah. [looks at paper] Is this for Spotlight?

Matt:  Just drop them off when they’re ready? Thanks.

A few minutes later, at 22 minutes into the film, there is a series of quick cuts and closeups of a variety of research methods and materials, including microfilm, photographs, clipping files, and keyword searching in an online database.

Reel Librarians | Variety of news research materials and methods in 'Spotlight' (2015)

Variety of news research materials and methods in ‘Spotlight’ (2015)

It’s clear that the news researchers are all women, and we see closeups of the hands and backs of the researchers, almost no faces. The focus, therefore, is not on the librarians and researchers — the focus is on the research itself.

Also, news flash:  Not all information is available on the internet! There’s still value in research the “old-fashioned” way.

We then see the initial results of all that research rolled, literally, into the Spotlight offices.

Reel Librarians | News research files in 'Spotlight' (2015)

News research files in ‘Spotlight’ (2015)

The research librarians are curious about the story, too, but the reporters have been directed to be “more discreet than usual” on this story. After more folders get dropped off, the Spotlight team discuss some of the possible leads.

Robby:  How much longer you need to get through the clips?

Sacha:  I mean, a few days. There’s a lot. Lisa’s still sending up more.

There are folders and folders of clippings and articles stacked up on the reporters’ desks. The research library team is definitely delivering on their end, and it is clear that their research is vital in helping the reporters pinpoint names of both priests and victims, as well as follow up on a victims’ organization and support group.

It’s also clear that Lisa, as head of the library, is well-known and on a first-name basis with the entire Globe staff. At 49 mins into the film, Matt asks advice from Eileen MacNamara, the columnist who had initially written about the priest Geoghan.

Matt:  Hey Mac, if I wanted historical data on a priest and parishes he’d been assigned to, where would I find that?

Eileen: The Geoghan case? It’s all in the clips. Lisa has the source material.

In the very next scene, we see Lisa again, this time in what must be the print collection of the newspaper library and archives. We get a closeup of the multi-volume Catholic Encyclopedia and paperback copies of the Massachusetts Catholic Directory, all with spine labels of what looks to be Dewey Decimal call numbers in the 200’s. [And that is correct, Class 200 in the Dewey Decimal classification system is about religion. Y’all knew I would doublecheck that, right?!]

Reel Librarians | Print directories in 'Spotlight' (2015)

Print directories in ‘Spotlight’ (2015)

Lisa:  The Archdiocese puts out an annual directory. Every priest and parish.

Matt:  Oh, that’s great. Do these go back any further than ’98?

Lisa:  Oh yeah, going back to the ’80s in the mez. Beyond that, you gotta go to the BPL. [Boston Public Library]

Matt:  The mez, huh? Thanks, Lisa.

Lisa:  You bet.

Reel Librarians | Print collection of news library in 'Spotlight' (2015)

Print collection of news library in ‘Spotlight’ (2015)

There are rows of shelves in the news library, and there looks to comfy seating in the back with a padded chair.

We next see Mike and Walter join Matt in the aforementioned “mez” (short for “mezzanine”), looking through the old church directories. The “mez” is decidedly less comfortable than the news library, with metal shelving, stacked-up boxes, no light (no one can find the light switch), and a suspicious smell.

Mike:  What the hell is that smell?

Matt:  There’s a dead rat in the corner.

Reel Librarians | Mezzanine library archives in 'Spotlight' (2015)

Mezzanine library archives in ‘Spotlight’ (2015)

Reel Librarians | Church directory archives in 'Spotlight' (2015)

Church directory archives in ‘Spotlight’ (2015)

These old church directories provide a series of vital clues that propel the rest of the investigation — and therefore, the rest of the film. The reporters realize that through these directories, they can track down priests who were reassigned by the church in order to obscure their crimes. With the 13 names of priests they currently have, Matt figures out that guilty priests were designated in the directories with a variety of related keywords, like “sick leave,” “absent on leave,” “unassigned,” “emergency response” and “treatment center.”

Reel Librarians | Sick leave designation in church directories

Sick leave designation in church directories

At 1 hour into the film, almost at the halfway mark of the 128-minute running time, the reporters realize there is an even bigger scope to the investigation. They could be looking at 90 or more priests, and they need a way to quickly identify them. They had been using the directories to track down and confirm priests revealed through interviewing victims — but what about using the directories the other way around? Therefore, the reporters use the directories — with the keywords they had already identified! — to track down more potentially guilty priests.

There is a resulting montage of this methodical research, all featuring the four reporters going through the directories, line by line, in different locations — at their desks, in the news library, even in public places like a bar.

We even get a quick clip of Sacha in what must be the Boston Public Library (Lisa had mentioned in an earlier scene that the BPL had even older copies of the church directories), at a library table and surrounded by the iconic green lamps you find in classical libraries. A security guard announces “Library closing,” and Sacha checks her watch.

Reel Librarians | Boston Public Library library scene in 'Spotlight' (2015)

Boston Public Library library scene in ‘Spotlight’ (2015)

Matt (who was described by the Globe as “the database reporting specialist for the Spotlight Team”) then begins building a database of names. This research method results in a database file of 87 names.

Reel Librarians | Cross-checking names in 'Spotlight' (2015)

Cross-checking names in ‘Spotlight’ (2015)

I have to admit, I clapped my hands at this montage and shouted out, “Keywords! It’s all about keywords!” My husband thought my outburst hilarious, but I was seriously pleased at the inclusion of this kind of old-school, thorough method of research — and critical thinking. It made my librarian heart smile and burst with pride! 😀

By the way, this 2016 interview with the real-life Lisa Tuite reveals that it was also the news librarians — not just the reporters — who “manually cross-referenced the directories to follow priests from parish to parish. As names of the priests involved in the scandal came to light, Tuite and her team researched the priests’ backgrounds. Tuite’s “research forensics” revealed the story.” (By the way, Lisa Tuite is also personally thanked in the film’s acknowledgements.)

In a Boston Globe article from Oct. 28, 2015, Lisa is included in “The real people behind the ‘Spotlight’ characters,” about actors and the real people they are portraying.

Boston Globe article screenshot

I also looked up Lisa’s current staff profile page on the Boston Globe website:

“Tuite directs a staff of researchers who provide background and fact-checking to reporters and editors. The library manages the Globe text and photo archive as well. She joined the Globe in the library in 1979.”

Librarian staff profile page on Boston Globe site

Librarian staff profile page on Boston Globe site

In her scenes, Lisa is dressed in comfortable, professional clothing (cardigan and shirtdress in one scene and a button-down and black trousers in another), wears glasses and subtle jewelry (small hoop earrings and a thin gold watch), and has long brown hair with the front half pulled back. The film’s credits also list Zarrin Darnell-Martin as Intern Wanda (she’s the one who delivers the files to the reporters), and the IMDb.com cast lists includes Colleen Kelly as a Librarian, uncredited. There are at least two other library researchers uncredited, women you can see in the background of the library and archives research scenes. All fulfill the Information Provider role in this Class III film.

You can see Michele Proude’s clips in the film via Vimeo, here at https://vimeo.com/159127965.

Spotlight librarian video

Click on screenshot to play video of librarian scenes in ‘Spotlight’ (2015)

I really enjoyed watching Spotlight, a film that is smart and mature — it goes deeper than the surface of the sensational stories they uncover and write about. And it doesn’t do that with flashy performances or “gotcha” moments. It builds slowly, methodically, until the evidence they uncover cannot be denied:  not by the reporters themselves, not by the church lawyers, not by the public, not by the audience watching the film. And as a librarian, I gotta love a film that treats research — “Get those directories upstairs!” — as pivotal and key scenes.

To sum up, I have to highlight a contribution to the “Auto-Cat” listserv (a listserv for automation & cataloging librarians) from Michael Klossner, who highlighted the library scenes in Spotlight. I can’t sum it up any better than he does:

The film is being described as a valentine to an old institution which is often considered out-of-date in the wired world, the newspaper. It is also a tribute to another old-school  institution, the library — in spite of the rat in the corner.

I highly recommend Spotlight not only as an excellent film, but also as a film that highlights excellent research. And kudos to Lisa Tuite and her staff of librarians and researchers at the Boston Globe news library!

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6 comments on “‘Spotlight’-ing a news library

  1. popegrutch says:

    Yes, I was thinking all the time I was reading this about how newspapers are being forced to downsize and news libraries are being shut down. Where will quality investigative reporting come from in a future without these “old media” stalwarts?
    Still, it’s exciting to hear about a successful film that highlights research and even includes a real-to-reel librarian as a character!

  2. Heidi says:

    Thanks for this essay! Whenever I think about Spotlight, I remember the lawyers who came to UP at that time to use our Official Catholic Directory to track priests moved from one parish to another as their (arch)diocese tried to get rid of/hide the problem.

  3. […] final entry in revisiting past favorites on this blog is a post from May 2016, “‘Spotlight’-ing a news library,” in which I analyze the 2015 Best Picture Oscar winner, Spotlight, which highlights […]

  4. […] ‘Spotlight’-ing a news library (May 2016) […]

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