Ethics Film of the Year: “Spotlight”

No spoiler alerts necessary; I’m not going to say much about the film’s plot. Just go see it.

Sure, I was predisposed to like “Spotlight.” It’s about Boston, my home town; Fenway Park even appears in it, Red Sox and all.  I had also followed the unfolding Catholic Church sexual molestation scandal there that the Boston Globe broke in 2002. This was the Globe’s momentous investigative journalism series which showed the extent to which high-ranking Church officials allowed child predator priests to continue harming trusting kids, as the Church paid for confidential settlements to victims and transferred the criminal priests to other parishes, where they could, and did, strike again. “Spotlight” tells the story of how a group of Globe editors and reporters finally exposed a local conspiracy of corruption that spread across institutions and professions, and that pointed to a world-wide scandal that still haunts the Catholic Church today.

It’s a better ethics movie than “All The President’s Men,” to which it will inevitably be compared. Whether it’s a better movie or not is a matter of taste. (I liked it better.) Where the movie really shines, however, is how it raises so many of the ethics issues we routinely cover here, such as…

  • Legal ethics: the duty of lawyers to represent clients, confidentiality, and when, if ever, human ethics require the breaching of professional ethics.
  • Ethics corruptors, and what happens when admired, trusted and powerful people and institutions require their followers to show their loyalty by ignoring, rationalizing or covering up wrongful acts.
  • Journalism ethics: the business of journalism’s conflict with the duty of journalists to find and publicize the truth; how ambition, personal biases and non-professional concerns can warp perspective and performance
  • Ethics and religion, hypocrisy, and the institutional utilitarian choice to protect the whole when it means sacrificing individuals
  • Rationalizations, including the Saint’s Excuse and the King’s Pass, in which prominence and “good deeds” seem to justify double standards.
  • Hindsight bias, Moral luck, and more.

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