Hello! We are Nicole Dungca and Todd Wallack of The Boston Globe's Spotlight Team. We are part of a longstanding investigative unit that has produced some of the most groundbreaking and explosive reporting in journalism over the past five decades. The Spotlight Team's most well-known report was on serial abuse of children in the Catholic Church, for which the Globe was awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service. The report was also the basis for the film "Spotlight," which won the Academy Award for best picture in 2015. https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/movies/spotlight-movie

This week, we published a months-long investigation into the state's "secret courts," a hidden part of the Massachusetts criminal justice system in which justice can depend on where the hearing is held, who you know, or the color of your skin. "Inside the Secret Courts of Massachusetts": http://apps.bostonglobe.com/spotlight/secret-courts/

To catch you up to speed, here are some recent reports we've done:

Boston. Racism. Image. Reality. Does our city deserve its racist reputation? http://apps.bostonglobe.com/spotlight/boston-racism-image-reality/

Secrets in the sky: http://apps.bostonglobe.com/spotlight/secrets-in-the-sky/series/part-one/

Clash in the name of care: Should a surgeon run two surgeries at once? http://apps.bostonglobe.com/spotlight/clash-in-the-name-of-care/story/ Full archive: https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/spotlight

And, watch for our upcoming six-part series and podcast on former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez, "Gladiator," which will debut later this month.

If you're curious, here's a little more about us:

Nicole: https://www.bostonglobe.com/staff/dungca

Todd: https://www.bostonglobe.com/staff/wallack

We're excited to be here and looking forward to your questions!

This AMA is part of r/IAmA's “Spotlight on Journalism” project which aims to shine a light on the state of journalism and press freedom in 2018. Join us for a new AMA every day in October.

Comments: 68 • Responses: 27  • Date: 

JohnnySkynets15 karma

How did the office react to the scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale with TBG?

bostonglobe11 karma

We immediately noticed the scenes were not filmed at the Boston Globe! They were actually filmed at a newspaper in Canada. But it was still eerie seeing a story about journalists murdered - particularly who worked at the Globe. (On a side note, the Globe recently received death threats.) https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2018/08/30/california-man-arrested-charges-threatening-shoot-boston-globe-employees/EejiWXLNscUR8AxDB3y7RL/story.html - Todd

ltmilburn14 karma

How would you encourage young reporters just getting in to the business to find an interest in investigative reporting? Especially those who are initially most interested in feature stories. Thanks!

bostonglobe10 karma

I would start by covering a beat at a local newspaper, TV station, or radio station. Go to meetings. Interview people. Ask questions. Follow your curiosity. Start asking for documents. And join Investigative Reporters and Editors, a journalism organization with lots of resources for digging into stories. You don't have to be a investigative reporter to join! https://ire.org/ - Todd

schmeebasaur12 karma

What's the best beer in Boston?

bostonglobe13 karma

Would it be controversial to name something from Vermont? Heady Topper has to be one of the top beers for me. If you're going strictly Boston, I used to like Pretty Things before they closed up shop. Now, I'm a big fan of Lamplighter Brewing. -- Nicole


Did you get any answers on why Chelsea District Court drops the most charges in all Massachusetts?

Was it a shortage of public defenders? Shortage of Spanish speaking public defenders? Shortage of interpreters? Not wanting to give undocumented aliens criminal records which put them at risk for deportation?

What has A.G. Maura Healey had to say about the secret courts and what is she doing to reduce their disposal numbers and increase transparency?

bostonglobe5 karma

Thanks so much for asking about our latest investigation.

We found approval rates vary widely even when courts serve communities of similar incomes. For instance, Worcester District Court approves 82% of requests for charges at clerk magistrate hearings. By contrast, Chelsea District Court approves less than 19%. (For background, the courts hold the hearings to figure out whether there is probable cause to believe the person committed a crime. If not, clerks are supposed to reject the requests for criminal charges.)

The Chelsea District Court clerk said he has a personal rule of dismissing cases if the victim doesn't attend the proceedings, which is different than many other clerks. (Hearsay is allowed in the hearings, so police typically tell the clerks what the victims reported.) So that could be one reason why Chelsea approves fewer charges than other courts. (The court also serves Revere, by the way.)

We haven't talked to the attorney general yet about the hearings, but we hope to do so. (The attorney general's office is generally not involved in the "show cause" hearings. Instead, police handle most of the cases themselves and sometimes involve the district attorneys offices. But we want to know what the AG has to say about the cases.) We are continuing to pursue this investigation, so feel free to send us any tips or suggestions at [[email protected]](mailto:[email protected]). - Todd


The Boston Globe has a reputation for liberal bias. Displayed in the series showing authors sought to confirm the white and wealthy get better outcomes in courts. When the data showed that untrue, especially in low-income, immigrant Chelsea, they seemed to stop looking any further, lest they find more information challenging their prejudices.

Who is more appropriate to comment on the secret courts and silent dismissal of misdemeanor and criminal charges than the state's Attorney General? Did she not respond to the Spotlight Team?

Or, are you just on to the next story - Aaron Hernandez? I wonder what else there is to write about him or who wants to read it. If they have interviews with fellow inmates, ex-boyfriends, and gang associates, then maybe I would read.

bostonglobe2 karma

Actually, the Globe did find evidence that people who are white or affluent were more successful in avoiding charges at the hearings. Here is what the story said: "The Globe also found evidence that white defendants may have slightly greater access to these private sessions than black and Hispanic defendants, and, once inside, have better success in defeating charges. Clerks rejected more than 49 percent of cases against white defendants, versus roughly 44 percent of cases against minorities, according to a Globe analysis of court data from the second half of 2017." We also found evidence that defendants were significantly more likely to avoid charges if they had the money to hire a lawyer. Unlike traditional court proceedings, indigent defendants are not entitled to a court-appointed attorney at the private hearings. - Todd

Duke_Paul9 karma

Hi! Thanks for doing an AMA with us!

What is an average work day like for an investigative reporter? I'm sure "every day is different," and all but like...are you desk jockeys, or are you out most of the day, or what? Also, when do you know a story is "ready?"


bostonglobe12 karma

Every day is different, Duke_Paul! Just kidding. But only somewhat kidding - I come into the office a lot and make calls from here. But I've got to say I love interviewing people in person. I feel like you get a more authentic conversation and it's easier to build a rapport with people. It really depends on the investigation - for this last one about secret courts, for example, my colleagues and I drove all over the state going to district courts. It probably wasn't great for my car, but great for me to be reporting outside the office.

It's tough to know when it's "ready" because a lot of reporters could just spend forever obsessing over their copy if you give them the chance (or is that just me?). I feel like I know we have enough for a story when I can write the top, and what we call a "nut graph" -- basically, a paragraph that can distill all your new news into a very clear takeaway. Most journalists live and die by the deadline, though - they'll be changing things right up until publication. -- ND

bostonglobe8 karma

Thanks for joining us today; the questions were great. Next up from the Spotlight Team is a series and podcast on Aaron Hernandez: https://wondery.com/shows/gladiator/

If you feel strongly -- like we do -- that investigative reporting is important, please subscribe! You'd be directly supporting the work that we do. https://subscribe.bostonglobe.com/B3127/


How many members of the current 2018 Spotlight team were on the team in 2003 when they broke the Catholic abuse story?

bostonglobe21 karma

Sacha Pfeiffer is still on the team. She's at work on an investigation and a podcast into Aaron Hernandez's life as we speak! The others are still in Boston. At least two are shaping the next generation of investigative reporters by teaching journalism students in college and grad school. -- ND

MatNomis7 karma

As someone not involved in the field of journalism, I largely clung to my childhood assumption that all reporting was somewhat "investigative" (i.e. reporters uncovering facts). For me, the Spotlight film was how I learned that pure "investigative journalism" teams are even a thing--and I'm very glad they are. Apart from subscribing (which I've recently done), what can we do to support this kind of work? Also, can you name a few other papers have great investigative teams?

bostonglobe2 karma

Major papers like the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal have long been known for their investigative teams. But many regional papers, such as the Globe, Chicago Tribune, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Seattle Times, the Miami Herald, and Tampa Bay Times are well known for their investigative reporting as well. And even smaller papers, such as the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and Charleston Gazette-Mail, have won Pulitzers for investigative reporting in recent years. Moreover, many nonprofit investigative news organizations, including ProPublica and the Marshall Project, have sprung up in the past dozen years. And a number of papers, including USA Today, are expanding their investigative reporting teams. So, there's lot of great investigative reporting going on. (Many of the cutbacks in journalism around the country have come in traditional local reporting, such as State House bureaus, which have always been critical to uncovering corruption and other important stories.) - Todd

lula24887 karma

What is the weirdest thing you've seen when looking over at the car next to you while driving?

bostonglobe8 karma

I can't think of anything, but our social media editor IMMEDIATELY had an answer when I wondered about this aloud. And hers is very good: It was a dog in goggles. They're called doggles.


bostonglobe3 karma

If you want to see this happy doggo in all of his or her glory, just cruising up 93, heading into Boston: r/https://i.imgur.com/o6DMTW8l.jpg

amillertime126 karma

How many tabs are typically open at any given moment on your computers?

bostonglobe6 karma

Right now, there are 12 open tabs. This is a low number for me. -- ND

theflakybiscuit5 karma

Did the movie accurately portray what happened? Did the team read the script or have any creative direction in plot?

bostonglobe6 karma

I think the movie accurately captured the spirit of the investigation, but it was not a documentary. Some characters were combined and other items changed to make it work better as a story. But the original Spotlight Team did have some input into the script and spent time with the actors. (And I am really glad the writers didn't invent a romance between any of the reporters just to pump up the drama.) - Todd

j2e215 karma

Does it ever bother you that your team is known for the Catholic Church abuse report when that was so long ago? Do you ever feel like people gloss over your more recent work?

bostonglobe9 karma

I guess that is to be expected. The Catholic Church investigation inspired investigations around the world - as well as a fantastic movie. (The Spotlight film is a great view into how investigative reporting works.) But I hope people check out all the other work we have done in the past 16 years. - Todd

bostonglobe7 karma

I'd say no. It's such an important part of the team's legacy. If anything, I think it helps when I have to explain what kind of reporting I do to someone who might be reluctant to talk. I'm thankful that kind of work -- and the movie -- helped show people what investigative reporting is really about, how much work it takes, and why they should support it. -- Nicole

De4dstrike5 karma

Which of your past investigations was the most rewarding in your opinion? Do you feel like some made a more tangible impact than others?

Have you conducted an investigation into something that you felt was extremely important only to have the public not really react to you breaking the story?

bostonglobe13 karma

I am personally very proud of the story we wrote about sex abuse at private schools. We found more than 100 private schools in New England have faced allegations of sexual misconduct by staff members. The stories spurred many schools to launch their own investigations, strengthen their policies, and fire staffers who have been accused of abuse. The series also prompted officials in all six New England states to look at revising their laws or other policies.

We also worked on an important story about the state's struggling mental health care system. It was a Pulitzer finalist. But I don't think it has had as much impact as we would have hoped. Unfortunately, it is not easy to fix a mental health system. - Todd

bostonglobe10 karma

This is Nicole now: And that's like choosing one of your children! But I've got to say I feel really proud about our investigation from last year about racism in Boston. It wasn't a traditional investigative story and was more explanatory -- but I think we did a good job showing with data how racism and racial disparities infiltrated every aspect of our daily lives. We wanted to make it impossible for people to brush off racism in a city that prides itself on its progressive credentials, and I like to think it succeeded.

But it is also hard to measure the impact, sometimes: People weren't necessarily forced out of companies, or legislation wasn't immediately passed. But when I talk to people who have read it, they'll sometimes say, "Oh, we shared this with all of our new hires" or "We start meetings now by basically asking everyone if they've read the series." And that is a lasting impact that I didn't quite expect, and that I'm quite happy to see.

cheddar_floof5 karma

What effect did the movie have on your work after its release?

Love the work you guys do btw

bostonglobe7 karma

The movie release was great. I think it really helped people understand all the work and challenges involved in investigative journalism. And it raised Spotlight's profile. It also helped inspire the Spotlight Fellowship program, which has already helped support two national investigations - "Secrets in the Skies" and "Quiet skies." Others are in the works. (I also got to meet actors Mark Ruffalo and Brian D'Arcy James.) - Todd

MurdaHP4 karma

If you got a chance to investigate something outside of the Boston/New England area, what would you choose?

bostonglobe5 karma

I once pitched a story that would require a trip to Bermuda. (It got rejected.) But we have done some national stories that affect people in both Boston and nationwide, such as the FAA investigation. And my colleagues Jenn Abelson and Jon Saltzman did a story about a surgeon in New York overseeing multiple operations at once. And Jenn Abelson and Sacha Pfeiffer recently did an investigation of sexual abuse in the modeling industry that was largely centered in New York. - Todd

Patweekly4 karma

All jokes about millennials' attention spans aside, how do you keep reader engagement up with some of the longer investigative pieces?

bostonglobe3 karma

Many of our readers now read our investigations on their smartphones. So we always work with our web producers and developers to make sure the stories look good on mobile devices. We've also added interactive graphics, video, and audio and other digital features to make the stories more engaging online. But readers - young and old - generally want the same thing: A good story. - Todd

orangejulius4 karma

What are the challenges you're facing today?

Does eroding public trust in the press have an effect on how you do your job?

bostonglobe10 karma

Like every newspaper, we're smaller than we used to be. But we're very lucky that, especially as a regional newspaper, we have an organization that prioritizes investigative journalism. This kind of work takes so many resources and so much time. We've actually grown the Spotlight team in recent years, and even added a new team that's focused on investigations with quicker turnarounds. 

As for the public trust: Personally, I haven't run into many people who are less willing to talk to me because they don't trust our newspaper. Some people don't want to talk because they felt they've been burned by the media before, or for any number of reasons -- and you just have to work on building that trust on a personal level.

But, in general, I do worry about newspapers that have shut down or had to shrink. It's never good to have fewer places keeping the government and huge institutions accountable. We need these watchdogs in place.

-- ND

hpw6173 karma

What is the weirdest thing you've seen riding on the MBTA?

dijorno3 karma

How did you come to be on the Spotlight Team?

Did you do something reckless but brilliant and your supervisor said “you pull another stunt like that and you’re outta here! too bad you’re the best gat-dang reporter I seen in 30 years... we might have a team for you...”?

bostonglobe3 karma

Ha! That would make a good movie scene. Seriously, I got on the Team because the editors wanted someone with both a background in investigative reporting and data journalism. Over the years, data has become an increasingly crucial part of many of our investigations. (And speaking of movies, I believe the Spotlight movie was the first to feature a data journalist - Matt Carroll. He now teaches at Northeastern University, by the way.) - Todd


Can we get a glimpse of your perspective on Aaron Hernandez? Do you think it was CTE or was he just a bad dude? Title of the piece ("Gladiator") might suggest a sort of aggrandizement... Is that intentional?

bostonglobe8 karma

Stay tuned. The Aaron Hernandez series should launch online on or around October 13 and the podcast should start on October 16. We will definitely cover CTE as part of the series. Here is a link for the podcast: https://wondery.com/shows/gladiator/ - Todd

porcoeur3 karma

How do you decide on an investigation? How often so you start projects that don't go anywhere?

Thanks for doing this!

bostonglobe8 karma

It's so difficult because you can only do so many projects at once! When I first joined Spotlight, we had a lot of meetings where people just shared what they were "prospecting" -- i.e. reporting out something that they believed could be a worthwhile investigation. There's a lot of communication between team members about why one project might or might not be worthy of having several reporters working on something for months at a time.

In that sense, you're often looking into stories that might not go anywhere. But sometimes, you'll send those tips to others who may be able to get to it, or just place it on the backburner. Todd, actually, had wanted to do this story on "secret courts" for years because he started noticing these closed-door criminal court hearings. But only recently did we all get the go-ahead to just go forward and report on it for months. And now it's out (and it's great, go read it!).

-- Nicole

bostonglobe4 karma

Nicole partly answered this question already. But this is probably the most challenging part of the process. We try to pick stories that our readers will care about and will have impact. We also have to figure out whether we can't actual find the people or documents we need to tell the story. Unfortunately, we can only tackle a limited number of projects each year. - Todd

orangejulius2 karma

How do you feel about the use of anonymous sources?

bostonglobe9 karma

We frequently rely on anonymous sources to find out about stories, but we try to avoid quoting them unless absolutely necessary. Instead, we try to locate documents and people willing to speak on the record. We think that gives our stories more force. (And just to clarify, we never quote anonymous sources unless we know who they are, find them credible, and can verify much of what they tell us.) - Todd