Jonathan Saltzman of the Boston Globe, known for his Spotlight investigative journalism, visited UConn Monday afternoon to discuss his career and dispense advice.
Newswriting I, a class that has previously had guest speakers, hosted Saltzman. He is a reporter on the now-nationally-known Spotlight team, which gained widespread notoriety when a feature film was released starring Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Michael Keaton that detailed their investigation into the Catholic church in Massachusetts and the practice of molestation of children by many higher-ups in the church.
"Spotlight" won the Academy Award for Best Picture of the past year.
Saltzman joined the Spotlight team in 2011, and was not there at the time of the specific story. He has published a large number of high-profile stories since then.
Newswriting I professor Mike Stanton knows Saltzman personally from their time together at the Providence Journal, where Stanton was the leader of their investigative unit which Saltzman was a member of.
“This reinforces why newspapers are important,” Stanton said of "Spotlight."
Saltzman said that the most realistic part of "Spotlight" was when Sacha Pfeiffer, played by McAdams, knocks on someone’s door about a sex abuse scandal, whereupon the door is slammed in Pfeiffer’s face.
“That happens to me every day,” Saltzman said. “When you work on the Spotlight team, most of the time you’re working on stories that people do not want to appear in the paper.”
Saltzman went on to say that a lot of news stories are written about people who want to be written about. The difference in investigative journalism is that oftentimes, people will go to great lengths to prevent that story from appearing in print.
As a member of Spotlight, Saltzman has worked on stories including ones about surgeons at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) working on two patients at once (called “double booking”), taxicab schemes where fleet owners get rich while their drivers are “fleeced,” high rates of prison suicides in Massachusetts, unsafe housing conditions on university/college campuses and certain judges whom acquitted nearly all of the drunk driving cases brought before them.
Some of these stories took over a year to produce. The “double booking” surgeon story faced particular difficulties because of John Henry, who was the owner of the Red Sox and the Boston Globe at the time, as well as a large contributor to MGH. As a result, the story had to be checked and re-checked by editors constantly. It also took months to get the top whistleblower – a surgeon in the hospital – to go on record. Since after the article was written, the surgeon was fired from MGH.
“As soon as we started working on that story, the hospital hired a crisis management consultant,” Saltzman said. “She did everything in her power to try to kill the story…to be a whistleblower in America is a very risky thing to do.”
An incredible amount of work goes in to writing a Spotlight investigative piece, Saltzman said. Records are pored over, interviews pile up and story structures can change 50 times.
Saltzman pointed out that another accuracy of Spotlight is the amount of tedium that goes into reporting. Finished Spotlight stories are quite long, artfully written and include photos, videos, interactive graphics, graphs and other story-enhancers.
The Spotlight team also prides itself on never making a mistake and protecting its sources.
“It’s sacrosanct that you protect your sources, because if you don’t, people aren’t going to talk to you,” Saltzman said.
Saltzman offered a cache of journalistic counsel. He said that many times, investigative stories can be hiding in plain sight. He advanced the idea that “if you want to go into journalism chances are…you start at a small newspaper.”
He advised the aspiring journalists in the room to refrain from capitulating to those in power, to the story they want you to write. He also emphasized the importance of storytelling in journalism, which, he said, is just as important as the gathering of reliable information.
For Saltzman, investigative reporting has always fit to his interests.
“I like digging into things. I really have always liked detective stories,” Saltzman said. “I really enjoy interviewing people and trying to win them over and talk with me.”
Sten Spinella is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email firstname.lastname@example.org.