Investigative journalism more important than ever

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Actor Rachel McAdams plays the part of Boston Globe investigative reporter Sacha Pfeiffer in the film “Spotlight.” / Toshifumi Kitamura/Getty Images

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Investigative reporters at newspapers like the Sun-Times and watchdog organizations like the Better Government Association do what they do because they’re committed to uncovering nasty secrets about what’s really going on, and hoping their disclosures spark necessary changes.

It’s a mission epitomized by our BGA mantra: “Shining a light on government and holding public officials accountable.”

We’re not in it for money or accolades, but we’re fiercely competitive — get it first, get it right, have it matter — and that’s one reason we compete for local and national awards.

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Competition helps us measure the quality of our work — the investigative choices we make, the information we uncover and disclose, and its impact.

I’m proud to say the BGA and Sun-Times, frequently in partnership, have been honored numerous times.

We also host our own journalism competition every spring, with a panel of experts judging entries for the BGA’s annual awards reception, sponsored by The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

The receptions also feature conversations with prominent national investigative journalists, and next Monday, May 16, we’ll be welcoming the now-famous Boston Globe Spotlight team that won print journalism’s biggest prize, a Pulitzer, in 2003, for uncovering a sex abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese, and a cover-up by top church officials.

You may have seen the reporters, and the actors who portrayed them, at the Academy Awards in February, where “Spotlight,” the movie based on their extraordinary reporting, won Best Picture.

Michael Keaton as Walter “Robby” Robinson, Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, and Mark Ruffalo as Mike Rezendes.

Onstage, producer Michael Sugar dedicated the Oscar to the abuse victims, saying: “Pope Francis, it’s time to protect the children and restore the faith.”

The Globe characterized the award as “an underdog win for a movie about an underdog profession,” calling the film “an ode to the hard-nosed, methodical work of a journalism increasingly seldom practiced.”

Sadly, there is less investigative journalism these days because of media cutbacks driven by declining ad revenues.

Investigations are expensive, time-consuming and labor-intensive — an easy target for bean counters.

Newspaper executive Marty Baron supervised the sex abuse investigation at the Globe, and now, more than a decade later, he’s uneasy about the future of investigative work: “It’s a cause for grave concern.”

We’ll be talking about that concern with the Spotlight team next week, and debriefing their investigation: How a few isolated abuse stories eventually sparked a painstaking, 20-month fact-finding hunt that uncovered an enormous scandal — ugly travesties that rocked a venerated religious institution, shocked an entire city and gave the victims a measure of justice.

It should be a fascinating and inspiring evening that will also include BGA awards to this year’s finalists: WBEZ, the online magazine Slate, and a newspaper in downstate Belleville.

We’ll recap the event and post pictures and videos on our website.

Clearly, economic pressures will continue to threaten traditional investigative journalism, but nonprofits like the BGA, with the help of generous donors, are picking up some of the slack.

And as I watch our investigative team and its media partners speak truth to power — buoyed by the celebration of their craft at cinema’s highest level — I’m confident the quality of their work will continue to make a difference.

As Blye Pagon, another “Spotlight” producer, told the Academy Awards audience: “We would not be here today without the heroic efforts of our reporters. Not only do they affect global change — they absolutely show us the necessity for investigative journalism.”

Amen.

Andy Shaw is president & CEO of the Better Government Association

Email: ashaw@bettergov.org

Follow Andy Shaw on Twitter: Follow @andyshawbga

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