Spotlight and Systemic Journalism

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Christopher Benson has written a great piece on Spotlight and the problems with an individualistic, rather than a systemic, focus:

[M]erely exposing individual wrongdoers does not go far enough if systemic flaws enable wrongdoing to continue.

That is the driving dramatic question for the movie and the emerging motivation for the Globe journalists.

Even more, though, it is a compelling challenge for the journalism profession on matters of race. Too often, we are content to frame stories about racial conflict as individual problems and not as institutional ones.

College campus tension, excessive police force, even racial political pandering are all framed as anomalies, problems caused by misguided individuals. As with “Spotlight,” that frame excludes what should be our real focus. As a result, we wind up missing a critical realization: We just might be part of the system we are “going after.”

Benson references instances of System Justification Theory, writing:

This is not a left-right bias, or even necessarily a black-white bias. This bias can spring from something seemingly benign — a belief that the system is fundamentally sound. People tend to believe problems only arise when individuals abuse the system. There is an unquestioned belief in the rightness of our institutions.

This tension between targeting bad individuals and focusing on systems is summarized in this dialogue, which Benson quotes:

Baron: “We need to focus on the institution, not the individual priests. Practice and policy …”
Bradlee: “Sounds like we’re going after (Cardinal Bernard Francis) Law.”
Baron: “We’re going after the system.”

I highly recommend reading the full piece, which has as many lessons for law and legal education as it does for journalism, here.

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