Potential Backlash

The Spotlight Team spent October and early November 2001 gathering its evidence, interview by interview and document by document. Gradually, it began to discern the dimensions of the story. In fact, the grim facts presented a challenge: It seemed too bad to be true. Precisely what made it a good story in a journalistic sense made it more difficult to report and write. If seasoned journalists were shocked, how would the public react? Says Robinson:

I could go to my best friends who trust me implicitly and I could tell them the story of what Geoghan did and what the church did to cover him up, and they wouldn’t believe me. Because you can’t believe that an institution like the Catholic Church would allow children to be so harmed for so many decades, nobody would believe it. We couldn’t believe it.

Listen to Robinson describe reporting a story that seems too bad to be true.

Although Baron wasn’t on intimate terms with Boston’s Catholic communities, he was well aware of the explosiveness of this story. He knew, for one thing, that his own religion could become an issue; critics might point out that the “Jewish editor” had arrived and immediately launched an investigation into the church. He adds:

I expected that there would be sort of an outburst of antipathy toward the Globe , of feeling that, once again, the Globe was going after the Catholic Church, and that we wouldn’t win any friends among devout Catholics.

The paper was also aware of the potential economic impact of printing a shocking story in a time of declining circulation and revenues. That didn’t mean they would hold the story, but Baron and his colleagues had to be realistic. “When [newspapers] are losing circulation, there is a heightened sensitivity to upsetting a good chunk of your community and having them cancel subscriptions on you,” says Baron.

Bradlee says there was an “unspoken understanding” among the journalists that the stakes were unusually high; they were, after all, producing a story damning the city’s most powerful institution, a source of pride and comfort for millions. While the Spotlight journalists could not prevent an angry reaction, they could try to minimize it. They could report the story exhaustively, using documentation and on-the-record sources where possible. They resolved to make a special effort to write dispassionately, to avoid loaded language and hyperbole, so that critics wouldn’t have even a small hook on which to hang charges of bias. “You just have to make the story bulletproof,” Pfeiffer says.