The Lorton Performance Center was dotted with just over 100 guests on Wednesday night as the audience prepared to listen to Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists speak on their experiences investigating traumatic events and institutional betrayal.
The speakers were Walter Robinson, Editor-at-Large of the Boston Globe; Susan Ellerbach, Executive Editor of the Tulsa World; Ziva Branstetter, Editor-in-Chief of The Frontier in Tulsa; Joe Hight, Endowed Chair of journalism ethics at the University of Central Oklahoma; and the panel was moderated by Elana Newman,TU’s McFarlin professor of psychology and research director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.
Robinson led the “Spotlight Team” that broke the story about the systemic abuse of young boys by Catholic priests in Boston, Massachusetts for which he won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. Hight was Editor of The Gazette in Colorado Springs when they won the Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting in 2014 for a story about dishonorable discharges. Branstetter and Ellerbach were part of the Tulsa World team that was a Pulitzer finalist in 2015 for their stories on the botched executions at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary.
President Designate Gerard Clancy kicked off the event. Clancy related the importance of the panel to his own work as a psychiatrist with children who have suffered from abuse. “It is vital that everyone understand the severe long term suffering and changes in brain function abuse can bring about in its victims,” he said.
“I’m thrilled that TU can continue to be part of this conversation with other universities in Oklahoma,” Clancy said before turning the floor over to Hight.
Hight gave a brief tribute to Anthony Shadid, a native Oklahoman who received two Pulitzer prizes for international journalism. Shadid died in 2012 while working as a Foreign Correspondent in Syria. Hight’s personal account was followed by a short video detailing Shadid’s work and life created by the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, which premiered that night.
Following the video, Hight introduced Newman and Robinson, the latter having just flown into Tulsa from a conference in Nepal. Newman began by asking Robinson about his work at the Boston Globe and the movie that resulted from their investigation.
“Spotlight,” the 2015 movie, followed Robinson’s team as they worked to uncover what they initially thought was one priest’s sexual molestation of children and the church’s efforts to move him around parishes instead of revealing his crimes to authorities. Through talking to victims and lawyers, however, they discovered a pattern of molestation and church coverup. While the film ended with the release of their initial investigation, they continued to investigate and prompted discoveries of similar crimes around the globe. Stanley Tucci, who played the victim’s attorney Mitchell Garabedian, called the movie “a necessary film. Something Hollywood doesn’t do much of nowadays.”
Critics compared “Spotlight” to “All The President’s Men,” to which Robinson responded “They are not. [“All the President’s Men”] is about the journalism. “Spotlight” is also about something else. To me, the brilliance of [the film] is that [the director] gave all of us a way to come to grips with what happened to the victims of the priests. And he did it with such sensitivity that we didn’t have to avert our eyes.”
“The impact of what we reported, because we had the documents, left the church with no real defense,” Robinson said. Because of this, there “wasn’t any real attempt to blame the messenger,” even though Boston is a heavily Catholic city.
When they published their initial story, Robinson said “We already had evidence that over 100 priests had abused children in Boston. We knew that the church had secretly settled cases with 70 of those priests”. If the church did settle the case out of court, settlements were often higher than if attorneys were involved because “their primary goal in all of this was to protect the reputation of the church and keep the secret.”
The story won the Pulitzer, Robinson believes, because it tackled an important issue that’d been hidden for years. At the time, “The church was the most powerful institution, and the Cardinal the most powerful political figure in Massachusetts”.
“For a long time, I think there’d been too much deference to the church, not just in Boston. That the Globe was willing to take this on,” was recognized by those deciding the Pulitzer, he said.
“Our anger at what we found out really drove us,” Robinson said, which is atypical of the stereotypical view of a reporter’s outlook when writing, to be as detached and objective as possible.
Later, Branstetter would emphasize this view, saying “The robot reporter…just doesn’t exist. You have to be able to have a heart and report what happened.”
“You can’t write a powerful story without powerful voices” Robinson said. He argued that although the maxim is that reporting is 90 percent fact and 10 percent writing, he views the best reporting to be 70/30.
While today’s journalism involves the internet more than in “Spotlight’s” time, Robinson hoped the movie emphasized that, “you can’t get people to tell you these stories by email, by text, or by phone call. You have to sit down, face to face.”
After some discussion between Newman and Robinson, a scene of the movie in which the Editor of The Globe directs them to focus not just on one abusive priest, but the system that was facilitating abuse, was played and the rest of the panelcame onto the stage. Newman said this demonstrated the restraint the panel had to exert when covering stories; not stopping at one, but looking at the system to uncover major problems.
Following the clips from the movie, the remainder of the panel was brought on stage. The topics discussed were institutional betrayal, how working on trauma impacts journalists, the reactions and pushback journalists receive when they cover major stories, how modern tech and social media have changed how they report, how the 24-hour news cycle and the importance of monetization can limit long-term investigative work and whether or not we are seeing the end or the evolution of print media.
“It’s important to bridge the gap between your readers and the people you’re writing about,” Branstetter said, as her coverage focused on the death penalty, which many Oklahomans support. The community, politicians and readers expressed their disapproval for the story, seeing it as successful because the inmate had still died or embarrassing for the state. This reaction is an example of the “blaming the messenger” reaction expected to come with a big story.
Ellerbach said “I think attitudes in Oklahoma have changed” as a result of the Tulsa World’s stories on the death penalty.
“[A colleague] and I started getting these calls from the Army, starting to complain about the story“ before it had even printed, Hight said. Hight’s coverage in Colorado Springs was on veterans being kicked out of the military for minor infractions in a city dotted with military institutions. Soldiers suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injuries were on the streets after being denied their military benefits.
“We saw a lot of really high ranking officers starting to send emails and calls all saying they were embarrassed by what was occurring to these veterans and they knew something needed to happen,” Hight said.
Newman noted that trauma reporting can be more challenging than standard reporting.
“We don’t talk about it a lot in our newsroom, and I think that’s probably not unusual in most newsrooms,” said Ellerbach. She talked about John Clanton, a Tulsa World videographer and photo editor, and his experience with trauma reporting. Clanton had told Ellerbach that he saw his first dead body while on an airplane crash scene at 21 years old, and it didn’t bother him because he had learned to separate his personal and professional life.
According to Ellerbach, Clanton spends extra time on projects that involve people who have been through traumatic experiences. “There have been several times where he sat there and visited with someone for maybe four hours just to be able to tell that person’s story,” she said.
“I think this type of reporting requires more time, requires more sensitivity, it requires someone to put some trust in,” Ellerbach elaborated.
“Most of the stories we do, we’re not worried about emotions,” Robinson said, but in the case of a traumatic story he says the concern of reporters is not to re-victimize victims.
Branstetter related the topic back to a meeting she had recently with the widow of Terence Crutcher, the unarmed man shot by police in Tulsa last month. “I could have interviewed her right then and there, but I didn’t. We just sat and talked for several hours.”
Newman said that what she has heard from many of the Pulitzer prize journalists is that “this kind of coverage, the one that wins the Pulitzer is about patience, restraint and not giving details that don’t tell the story.”
Hight responded to that, saying, “Journalists can find and compile all of the statistics they want and get all of the documents behind the story, which are very important, but until you find a human face, until you find that human being behind that statistics you really don’t have a story.”
Newman asked how journalists find the time to write these longer stories, which prompted Ellerbach and Hight to talk about the structure of news organizations and the resources available to smaller news organizations. Branstetter discussed how that system is different for an online paper.
Newman then asked questions from the audience about whether the panelists have ever felt the effects of covering these traumatic stories in their personal lives.
“I don’t think our team … ever had a real discussion about how is this affecting you,” Robinson said. “My wife is a nurse and she voluntarily diagnosed us all with PTSD at some point in the mid 2002.” He didn’t think her diagnosis was accurate, but conceded that the case did impact everyone on the team in some way.
Hight discussed how he came to terms with reporting on the Oklahoma City bombing, and later about helping a coworker who emphasized that he was taking care of himself.
“Journalists don’t take very good care of ourselves,” Branstetter said. “We’re like cops, we don’t want to admit any weakness because they’re going to take you off the story.”
“The thing that I get the most out of is talking to other reporters” Branstetter continued. She also talked about her moral support at home saying, “It’s good to have a good spouse who understands that when the Joplin tornado happens you’re going to be gone for two weeks or when this shooting happened that I’m working all night. I’m not going to have time to clean the kitchen.”
Newman then asked how these experiences affect their news judgement.
“In the 1960’s there was a journalism textbook the title of which was ‘Objective Journalism’. There’s no such thing,” Robinson said. “The passion you develop for a story, very often, most often, makes better reporting.”
“There’s a reason journalists have a little dark sense of humor. You have to have something to laugh at,” Ellerbach said.
“Great journalists learn how to be effective listeners,” said Hight.
Newman then talked about institutional betrayal. Newman argued that an organization that was supposed to protect people, whether the Church for Robinson, the VA for Hight or the State for Branstetter and Ellerbach, should not behave in these egregious ways, and the revelation of these things is what makes them so powerful.
Newman then switched again to discuss what the panelists believed was required to be a good investigative journalist. Robinson responded “To do good reporting you have to have a burning desire to find things out.”
Newman’s final question was about the future of print local and investigative journalism. The panel seemed divided about the answer to that question.
Ellerbach said, “I still think there is a market for printed journalism.”
“Investigative journalism has a future, but here’s the caveat, as long as it gets numbers,” Hight warned.
“I think people who subscribe to our papers understand that for democracy to function well it needs really good journalism to tell people what’s really going on,” Robinson said. “I’m not as hopeful about the future of print, but … I’m convinced that someone is going to figure out how to monetize a great online presence.”