Scrupulous Accuracy in the Age of Alternative Facts
It only takes a few moments of listening to Michael Rezendes to realize that he’s an unusually values-driven person. To hear Michael tell it, his guiding value is “scrupulous accuracy.” As a non-journalist who was familiar with the news coverage around the child sex abuse scandal that embroiled the Archdiocese of Boston, hearing Michael talk about his investigation is jarring.
As he details his thought process at the time, it is clear that he works according to his value of scrupulous accuracy, always hunting for the next piece of evidence that can slowly reveal the full truth. Meanwhile my mind jumps to emotion, outrage and a desire to get justice for the victims. But Michael is cerebral; he worships substantiation and is robed in fact. His concern is with proof. It was only later, as I sat to write this piece that I realized that substantiated facts, as provided by investigative reporters like Michael, are the bedrock upon which justice is constructed in our society. Justice simply cannot exist until truth has been proven.
Michael Rezendes is an American investigative reporter for the Boston Globe Spotlight Team, a small team of investigative reporters that spend extended amounts of time investigating particularly profound stories for The Globe that require discretion. He was among the small team of journalists behind the story that revealed the cover-up of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Michael and The Boston Globe won a multitude of prizes for this reporting work including the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service. Mark Ruffalo portrays him in the Academy Award-winning film, “Spotlight.” (The film won the 2016 award for “Best Motion Picture of the Year.”)
If you’re wondering whether Michael was just some fame-hungry person trying to claw his way to a more high-profile publication, just know that he still works at the Boston Globe in more-or-less the same capacity that he did at the time when he broke the child sex abuse story. Michael also continued writing on the matter of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church for a year after the initial story broke until Cardinal Bernard Law, the man at the helm of the Boston Archdiocese — who had overseen criminal abuse, pay offs, and cover-ups — left his post and fled to the Vatican.
As I listened to Michael recount the early days of this investigation I couldn’t help but question how anyone manages to muster the confidence to take on the Catholic Church — one of the largest, most entrenched, and most highly respected organizations in the world. Michael offered 2 explanations:
1. Relentless Drive
2. Intrinsic Motivation
Mr. Rezendes was raised Catholic and had several relatives who would describe themselves as devout Catholics. His interest in child sex abuse within the church grew when cases of child sex abuse in Louisiana and Massachusetts emerged in the early nineties. He believed there were more pedophile priests than had been uncovered at that time.
Despite his confidence, the Spotlight Team was staring down some huge risks that only a relentless commitment to scrupulous accuracy could help them overcome.
1. Catholicism in Boston — In 2002 Boston was one of the most Catholic areas in the United States. Anything that upset Boston’s Catholic population could financially devastate the Boston Globe.
2. Paradox of Reputation — The Boston Archdiocese and Catholic Church represented itself as a paragon of morality. Revealing truth of years of child sex abuse, payoffs, and cover-ups by clergy could have unforeseen consequences.
With these risks in mind, Michael and the rest of the Spotlight team proceeded in their investigation all-the-while dedicated to scrupulous accuracy and the highest ethical standards of substantiation. Fully aware that their readership would have every reason to question their reporting, the Spotlight team presented their story such that when you read a fact in the article you could immediately click on the document that substantiated that portion of events. This style of journalism was something that Michael and the Spotlight team pioneered. Despite expecting to be greeted by protestors, there were none on the day the story broke nor any thereafter because the story was bulletproof — it was based on the Archdiocese’s own records.
Toward the end of our conversation with Michael, he was asked what he would do differently if he were to cover the same story again in today’s world of alternative facts. His answer heartened me. He said, “I would do nothing differently. When we conducted this investigation, we did so at the highest ethical standards.” Isn’t that exactly what we need more of today? People who are willing to stand by their work because what they said or did before they were under public scrutiny was done at the highest ethical standards.
Michael Rezendes uncovered an ongoing system of criminal abuse and in the process saved countless children from falling victim to pedophiles. He saved those kids not with a weapon or a government mandate, but with scrupulous accuracy and high ethical standards. Michael and his thousands of investigative journalist colleagues across the United States are the unsung heroes of the American republic. They speak truth to power, shout the things we are afraid to whisper, and reveal facts what we do not yet know.
The business model for print journalism has failed, perhaps irreversibly. However, in a world of alternative facts where some people feel like they are not accountable to anyone, we need investigative journalists to provide the bedrock of fact upon which justice can stand. I welcome all who read this to think of a sustainable business model for investigative journalism. How can we make investigative journalism great again?