Spotlight’s Matt Carroll on the Oscars and the Future of Journalism

Matt and Elaine Carroll at the Oscars. Photo courtesy of Matt Carroll.
Written by Jonathan Gang

Matt Carroll is a former reporter for the Boston Globe and was an integral part of the team that inspired the film “Spotlight,” which took home the Oscar for best picture at last weekend’s Academy Awards. He is now a researcher at the MIT Media Lab, where he works to develop new tools for data and investigative reporting. He sat down this week to talk with Boston University News Service about the Oscars, the investigation that inspired the movie and the future of investigative journalism.

What have the past 48 hours been like for you?

Incredibly surreal. You probably don’t care about the first event but it was actually kind of important to me. I work at the MIT Media Lab now. We run conferences on big questions affecting journalism. We had this big conference called Beyond Comments: Building Better Conversations, about improving the culture of online commenting, particularly for news systems. We expected about 40 people and we had 120 show up. So it was a big day.

That ended at 5:30 p.m. and my wife and I jumped on a plane and went to LA. We landed at midnight Saturday, got up, relaxed for a little bit and then hopped in a limo with the other members of the team and went to the Oscars. We were very happy when Josh [Singer] and Tom [McCarthy] won the first one for screenwriting.

Then we had nothing happen after that, so I was thinking “OK, looks like it’s going to be ‘The Revenant’ tonight.” When they said ‘Spotlight’ we just went crazy, jumping up and down. It was an incredible night. We were in the second-to-last row of the building, a million miles away from the stage, but we had a total blast. The whole team was there plus spouses. It was just a wonderful, wonderful experience. Then we just partied afterwards and slept all day Monday.

How did you feel the moment when they opened the envelope and said “Spotlight?”

It was like winning the lottery. It was so gratifying that our work was rewarded in that way, not that we ever expected anything like that. We were so happy for the survivors of sexual abuse, who have been getting a lot more attention both from the church and other people out there. We think it was great moment for investigative journalism, which is obviously under siege because of revenue problems facing the whole industry.

What do you think this win means for journalism and investigative reporting?

I think there’s going to be a lot more people interested in investigative journalism after this. To me, that is just all good because so many people have abandoned investigative journalism, and there’s such a great need for it. I saw a note the other day in a Ken Doctor column that the number of journalists is almost half of what it was in 1990. That’s a really sad thing. So anything that helps stem the tide and gives people more inspiration to get onto the investigative-reporting train is awesome.

What do you think the future looks like for longer, deeper investigative projects like this?

I think the field is changing really quickly. Our classic print-based story is basically starting to wither away, which is fine. There’s just a lot of different ways of reporting stories online. You have a lot more interesting ways of conveying information, whether it’s data visualization or breaking stories into their component pieces and atomizing them into card-based systems like Vox or Fold does. The future is bright as far as I can see. It’s really, really exciting.

How do you think the project that inspired the movie would be different if you had had some of the tools available today?

Well I think some of the stuff would have been easier in some ways. If the priest files had been electronic we could have scraped the data, which would have saved us weeks of effort. On the other hand, maybe the files would not have been available at all. Maybe there only would have been one year of data, so it would have been harder in some ways.

It would have been a lot easier to expand our story nationally, because there would have been a lot more things online. Our story blew up really quickly because there was obviously email and web sites in those days, but there was no social media. Because of Twitter and Facebook and everything else the story would have exploded a little bit faster. It took a couple weeks for it to go totally national. If we done it now it would have been national overnight.

What do you hope this win means to the survivors of sexual abuse from the church?

I think it’s kind of like the first time around, except people have forgotten it. People were so gratified that their stories were being told and listened to. When you listened to their stories, they sounded a little crazy, because they’d been banging their heads against the wall for so long saying, “Look, I was abused by a priest.” People just refused to hear them. There was this huge emotional wave from the survivors who were hearing their stories told and were realizing, “Hey, I’m not the only one out there.” It relieved a lot of them and they were able to get a lot of help from churches and other institutions which is fantastic.

Now, the movie, because it’s a much more popular entertainment kind of thing, is reaching a lot more people. Also, the story came out twelve years ago, so it’s reaching another generation. I don’t think it’s just reaching out to people who have been abused by clergy, but also many people who have been sexually abused by a lot of different people.

How realistic was the portrayal of the investigation in the movie?

It was very real. I mean, I thought of it as a truthful fiction. Some of the stuff is definitely fictionalized. They combined characters. The time schedule is obviously different, some of the Father Paquin stuff happened after first edition came out. [Father Paquin was a priest implicated in the abuse scandal. In the film he speaks frankly about his abuse of children with Spotlight team member Sacha Pfeiffer, played by Rachel McAdams.]

They worked really head to make it feel authentic, and it really shows. They kept showing us the script and saying, “What doesn’t work? What is wrong here? What has a clunky tone?” We kept going back and forth making sure that it was right.

On that note, it sounds like they got the idea of everything pretty well, but how well did they capture the actual work that the team did?

I thought they did a tremendous job. The pieces that I was most interested in was the database stuff, because I’m a data geek. Even after I saw the script I didn’t really know how they were going to do that.

They turned it into this three-minute scene where they just show us running around assembling the database and I was like, “Oh my goodness, this is awesome!” They conveyed the feeling of “this is real drudgery, this took many, many hours of work.” I think it took us three weeks, and that’s three to four people working on it full-time. Every data geek in the country who’s seen it loves that scene.

Do you think that that’s going to have a positive impact on people paying more attention to data journalism?

I hope so. I mean, data journalism is getting bigger. The field is growing pretty quickly. I belong to NICAR [the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting], which is the data geek organization. We’re having a conference in a week. Six or seven years ago there were probably 350 people going. Now there’s about 1500. It’s expanded into a data and developer geek conference, so there’s more people there doing more things. But it does show you how quickly it’s growing.

Was there anything in particular in the movie where you thought they took some poetic license to heighten the drama?

Yeah. The Ben Bradlee character [played by John Slattery] is seen as dragging his feet a little bit, trying to pull people off [the story]. They wanted to add a little bit of drama to it, and I understand that. In real life, Ben very quickly realized that this was a huge story and was one-hundred percent behind it. They overplayed that slightly, but, like you said, it was done for a dramatic purpose.

What did you think of Brian D’arcy James’ performance as you?

I loved it. And so did my wife actually, which is a really good sign. And, you know, it’s not too bad when people hear my name and think of this really handsome Broadway actor.

What kind of interaction did you have with him prior to the movie?

We went out and we talked a bunch of times. He was in a Broadway play called “Something Rotten,” so I went out to New York and we caught up with each other there. We went out for a long, long supper. It was kind of funny, he would zone out a little and lean in towards me. I think he was trying to pick up physical cues of how I walked and talked and that kind of thing.

He kept on asking me, “How do you pronounce this word? How do you pronounce that word?” The one word I remember in particular was, “How do you pronounce ‘horror?’”

And I’m like, “Horrah.”

And he says, “Say it again.”

And I’m like, “Horrah.”

And he’s like, “Say it again.” He made me say it five times. And I’m like, “what the hell, why does he want me to say the word ‘horror’ for?” But there’s a funny line near the end of the movie where my character says, “I’m working on a book, and it’s a horror novel.” Just little stuff like that. He’s got the funny lines in the show which is cool, because I think I’m the funniest in this group anyway.

Was there a particular moment during the lead up to the production or when they were shooting it, when you thought there was something special going on with this movie?

We were all a little to a lot worried about the movie, because there had been a Showtime movie made about a year or two after the crisis, in which we played a fairly substantial roll, and it was horrible. I mean, it was really, really bad. So we were nervous.

Then they gave us a private showing in the South End two or three months before the actual release. It was basically just ourselves and our spouses. It was a little mind-blowing. The movie wasn’t quite done yet; it was like 95 percent done. I was like, “I have no idea what I just saw, I know the movie doesn’t suck but I can’t quite say more than that.” It was just so weird to see ourselves on the screen.

Then we went up to the Toronto International film festival back in September. They had it at the Princess of Wales Theater, which is a big theater that holds like 2,000 people. The movie ended, and there was just this unbelievable standing ovation that lasted seven or ten minutes. It was amazing. We walked onstage, and we answered some questions and, I mean, people were… we were pretty close to tears. It was just an incredibly emotional experience.

That time, when I watched it, I could take a step back and look at and say, “OK, this is a pretty good movie.” None of us had any idea that it had Oscar potential, until we got to reading the reviews afterwards. That was the time I started thinking about the Oscars.

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