James Hamilton on the Economics of Investigative Journalism

There is a three-part interview with James Hamilton of Stanford, who recently published Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism. Part 3 is here, and contains links to prior parts. The basic fact is that investigative reporting, like newspapers in general, has been damaged by the huge reduction in newspapers’ advertising revenue. Prof. Hamilton speculates about the future, and discusses the fact that investigative journalism often has major economic benefits to the public, but not the newspaper investing in such reporting.

Prof. Hamilton emphasized the importance of the Boston Globe’s reporting on the Catholic Church’s pederasty problem. He claims it “literally changed the world across countries”:

 “let’s think about rational ignorance and the Catholic Church. The Boston Globe’s Spotlight series shows that if you have a strong human interest side to a story about a failing institution, that can raise the odds it is told. Telling the full story of the Boston Archdiocese’s failure to deal with cases of sexual abuse by priests took significant reporting resources. It took data journalism, it took real digging to figure out what was going on, but that literally changed the world across countries.”

There are important errors and partial errors here. First, he assumes that the Boston Globe was the first to break this story. That is false. More than fifteen years earlier, Jason Berry broke the story of priestly child abuse and its cover-up in New Orleans and its vicinity. Jason Berry won awards for it, and his reporting was quite well known. Furthermore, Jason Berry later served as a consultant to the Boston Globe and co-authored some of their Spotlight articles.

The key point is that the ground-breaking investigative journalism by Jason Berry was reported by the major media, but did not “literally change the world.” Even Professor Hamilton seems to have forgotten it. By the time of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight series on the Church’s pederasty problem, it was nearly forgotten and had no discernable effect.

I think Prof. Hamilton greatly exaggerates the effectiveness of the Spotlight series, though not its importance. While he attributes the international investigations into the Church’s abuse problem  to the Spotlight series, that is wrong. A considerable amount of research in Ireland and elsewhere was done prior to Spotlight. I also believe that the effectiveness of the Spotlight articles waned far more quickly than Prof. Hamilton would have us believe.

I have a different view of the general picture. Over the last thirty years or more, the Catholic Church has lost a great deal of its flock and its support. This happened throughout Europe, the U.S. (where it was mitigated by Hispanic immigrants), and in South America – the single largest region of Catholics. In its halcyon days, the Catholic Church was better able to suppress the facts. They had more leverage with both government and the media, and used it – something highlighted by the Globe’s Spotlight series, as well as earlier findings by Jason Berry. With this loss of power and influence, the Church became more susceptible to criticism and investigative reporting. But they still have enough influence to shield them from real accountability.

For example, Pope Francis's Commission on Child Abuse has done almost nothing in over three years, a fact highlighted by the resignation of two of its members. There was a very brief ripple in public opinion after they quit in protest, but no substantive change. Similarly, the fact that the #3 person in the Vatican, Cardinal Pell, was charged with child sexual abuse by the Australian authorities, had a brief impact. Very brief. The major media had cursory coverage from newswire services the day after the event. But there was no follow-up. The “news cycle” for this story was one day. The sex abuse scandal in Penn State’s athletic department got far more coverage for a far longer period. The Church is still largely immune from accountability. My guess is that if the Pope himself were charged with child abuse, the news cycle on the story would be surprisingly short.