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Hollywood shines ‘spotlight’ on alumnus, former journalism professor

Walter Robinson, right, a former professor in the School of Journalism and Northeastern alumnus, is portrayed in "Spotlight" by Academy Award-winning actor Michael Keaton. Contributed photo

Journalism can be fun, particularly when you’re out chasing hot stories and scaring up killer quotations. But it can also be rather mundane, namely when you’re waiting around for sources to return your phone call, pouring over thousands of documents, or sitting through local government meetings.

Which is why when Hollywood producers approached former Northeastern journalism professor Walter Robinson and the team of Boston Globe reporters whose “Spotlight” series broke open the Roman Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in 2002, they had some trepidation.

“We were frankly a little skeptical,” Robinson, AS’74, said in a phone interview last week. “We didn’t think how we make the sausage would really make for a great movie.”

But the team ultimately acquiesced, and the result is the feature film Spotlight. The film, which opens Nov. 6, chronicles the reporters’ initial investigation into hundreds of priest who had allegedly molested young children. The reporters’ work earned the Globe the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

The movie does have some fictionalized scenes, but it is amazingly accurate in how it portrays the actual journalism we did. This is really pretty much what happened.
—said Walter Robinson, AS’74

According to the Globe, “Spotlight” is the oldest continuously operating newspaper investigative unit in the United States.

Robinson, who taught at Northeastern’s School of Journalism from 2007 to 2014, was the editor of the “Spotlight” team. He is portrayed in the movie by Academy Award-winning actor Michael Keaton.

“I spent a fair amount of time talking with Michael,” said Robinson, who is now an editor-at-large at the Globe. “But before we even met, he had already studied my voice and picked up some of my mannerisms. A lot of my friends who have seen the film said, ‘Boy, did he get you.’”

On Thursday evening, the College of Arts, Media and Design will host an advanced screening of Spotlight at the AMC Loews Boston Common. After the movie, School of Journalism director Jonathan Kaufman will moderate a panel discussion that will include Robinson, the Globe’s Sasha Pfeiffer, and other members of the “Spotlight” team.

Robinson spent time on the set while the movie was filming in Toronto. He noted that it was interesting to get a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a movie about the behind-the-scenes nature of journalism. He and the “Spotlight” team, he said, were really heartened by the effort of director Thomas McCarthy and his screenwriting partner Josh Singer to accurately portray how the reporters covered this story.

“They spent an enormous amount time doing research,” Robinson said. “The movie does have some fictionalized scenes, but it is amazingly accurate in how it portrays the actual journalism we did. This is really pretty much what happened.”

While the film only covers the start of the investigation, Robinson’s “Spotlight” team wrote some 600 stories about the sex abuse scandal in a single year. Reflecting on the effort, he noted that there wasn’t much the team missed but also acknowledged that he would have liked more time to fine-tune the work.

“I say this about every story: I wish I had that story back for one more day because I think I could make it better,” Robinson said.