Spotlight sends out a survey
Novel way for investigative team to gather information
The Boston Globe Spotlight Team earlier this month sent an email to nearly 200 private, independent schools in New England asking them to fill out an online survey documenting instances of sexual harassment and abuse at their institutions and how those situations were handled going back as far as 25 years.
“We need your help,” the email said, before providing a link to the survey. “We are also considering identifying any schools that decline to provide the information.”
The survey asks whether the schools are currently soliciting information from current or past students on sexual harassment and abuse and whether they have done so in the past. The survey asks for details on any criminal charges, civil charges, out-of-court settlements, or other allegations involving sexual abuse or harassment. It also asks whether the schools have fired or disciplined any employees for sexual abuse or harassment or reported any employees to the police over the past 25 years.
The Globe email doesn’t mention the survey is coming from the Spotlight Team, but its origin is what is interesting. The Spotlight Team, celebrated in the movie Spotlight for its investigation of widespread sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church, usually operates under tight secrecy and rarely goes public pre-publication with the focus of its investigation. In this case, however, the team’s survey is letting a lot of people in on the general theme of its reporting.
Scott Allen, the editor of the Spotlight Team, said the survey approach has been used in the past, specifically for a recent story on surgeons who perform two operations at the same time. That survey gathered information on hospital practices from around the country.
Allen said there have been a lot of media accounts of sexual abuse at independent schools, and the team used the survey to gain a more complete picture. “We’re supposed to ask questions, and this is a way to do it on a large scale,” he said.
As for identifying schools that don’t respond to the survey, Allen said that was nothing unusual. He said reporters routinely identify those who decline to comment in their stories. “We’re just being transparent and explicit about something that’s always true,” he said.Tom Fiedler, the dean of the College of Communication at Boston University, said in an email response that it seemed as if the Spotlight Team learned its negotiating tactics from a congressional investigations committee – “respond to these questions or be publicly shamed.”
Yet Fiedler agreed with Allen that the Spotlight Team’s approach was not substantively different from what reporters do all the time. “This approach – as blunt as it seems in print – is not substantively different from the shoe-leather method where a reporter asks the subject of a news story either to respond to a question or prepare to see their name attached to the damning phrase ‘refused to comment’ in the subsequent article,” he said. “As we both know, sometimes the sausage-making side of journalism is ugly.”