Within the walls of a Boston Globe conference room, Martin Baron sat among Emerson students, described his role as editor, and gave an in-depth recounting of the Globe’s 10-year coverage of the Catholic Church sex scandals, which resulted in a 2003 Pulitzer Prize.
Emerson’s Impact Journalism class, taught by lecturer Roy Harris, has been meeting face-to-face with various reporters and editors in Boston in order to discover how great journalism comes to be and what news organizations are doing to make their stories stand apart from the work of others.
Baron planted the seed of great journalism on his first day as editor at the Globe in July 2001. An experienced journalist, he suggested the paper investigate the most powerful institution in Boston at the time: the Catholic Church. The work entailed going to court to unseal and publicize documents that detailed more than 80 cases of clergy sexual abuse that had been covered up by the Church for the past four years. “It wasn’t the first time someone had written about the abuse,” Baron recalled, “but it was the first time you could see everything. There were these cruelly formulaic letters from the church, written to the distraught mothers of victims. It was shocking.
“Good journalism will expose betrayals of the public trust,” Baron told the students. “The plaintiff counsel was saying one thing, the Church was saying another, and our goal was to figure out the truth. The public deserved to know.” The class listened, jotted notes, and asked questions.
One student wondered what Baron thought the public reaction would be once the Globe released the story on January 6, 2002. Baron said they anticipated an uproar and a flood of calls, but didn’t receive nearly the amount of outraged responses they’d expected. Baron attributes this to the fine writing. “The reporters got very invested and passionate about their findings and had to remember to keep their writing tone neutral and factual. That way nobody thought we were on the attacking side, and readers could inject their own passion into the articles.” Despite these efforts, the Boston Globe has been accused of harboring a vendetta against the Catholic Church, especially after releasing more than 1,000 stories within the first year of investigation. A decade later, the case is still being followed by a team of Globe reporters.
“When did it cross your mind,” one student asked, “that this story could be Pulitzer worthy?” Baron paused before answering. “What’s important to remember is that as journalists, we do the right thing for our readers, not to win a prize. Ultimately, we stopped the secrets within the Church from continuing, and that’s what matters.”
Photo credit: Valerie Adamski ’15