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Journalism And Religion Work Together


It might seem the easy takeaway from the Oscar-winning film Spotlight is a zero-sum game: Journalism 1, organized religion 0.

Rather, the film reminds us why freedom of press and freedom of religion are conjoined within the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and can act as twin engines of progress in a society. They are sometimes at odds but also frequently work together to safeguard other civil liberties and exercise conscience in society.

Spotlight portrays a team of investigative reporters at The Boston Globe, who used shoe leather reporting and data analysis to connect the dots that the Catholic Church in Boston had been covering up cases of serial child molesting by priests. The story rippled around the world, leading to exposes of global proportion. Interestingly, the film showed the Globe journalists as abstemious people who don’t make much money, work all hours of the day and are devoted to their craft. It’s little wonder journalists sometimes refer to their profession as a “priesthood.”

Students tell me Spotlight makes audience members feel as if they are reporting along with Globe reporters in the film. “It doesn’t draw attention to its own filminess” the way many Hollywood films do, said Joseph Holmes, a student at The King’s College in NYC, who co-led a discussion on the film with me in April.

Since King’s is a Christian liberal arts college where most students are Protestant or Catholic, the discussion quickly turned to religion and whether the film should shake one’s faith in the church, spiritual leaders or, even, the Almighty. “I’ve always believed the church isn’t my God,” said one young woman. “God is my God. Humans fail.”

Spotlight is good for journalism, I told the students. It’s also good for the Catholic Church. Uncovering the systemic sexual abuse within the church forced the Church to reckon with that revolting history and consider how to make sure it won’t happen again. The same purification happens when we report on scandals in business, government or other institutions.

Expounding on this theme, here are five things journalism and religion have in common:

1. They both can and do speak truth to power.

Roman Emperor Theodosius enforced Christianity during his reign from 379 to 395 A.D. At one point, a skirmish between Rome and Thessaloniki led to a terrible event. Theodosius’ Roman Army invited Thessalonians into the local coliseum for a “special games.” The Romans locked the doors with 7,000 people inside and murdered every man, woman and child.

Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, sent Theodosius a letter demanding the emperor repent and withheld the Lord’s Supper from him. Theodosius eventually asked forgiveness in the church of Milan, kneeling down and weeping in public.

Theodosius later said that Ambrose was the first man he knew who told him the truth. Theodosius died five years later, in 395, with Ambrose at his bedside. In his funeral sermon, Ambrose told the soldiers: “Where unbelief is, there is blindness, but where fidelity is, there is the host of angels.” Ambrose died two years after this, on Easter weekend of 397.

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