Thinking Aloud

Spotlight on journalism and finding purpose in work

In a culture of consumption, the idea of service to something greater than oneself could go out the window

As we stepped out of the cinema, a colleague exclaimed: "I want to go back to reporting."

We had just watched Spotlight, this year's winner of the Oscar for Best Picture and a fine film on the power of journalism to uncover the truth. Like many of us, this colleague had started out as a reporter with The Straits Times but has since been promoted to another role in the paper.

The film Spotlight centres on the true story of a team of investigative journalists at The Boston Globe newspaper, who in 2001 and 2002 exposed the Catholic Church in Boston's cover-up of child sexual abuse by priests. They later won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Journalism.

So inspiring is the film that after watching it, newspaper journalists around the world have felt affirmed in their choice of profession - despite grave financial pressure from the Internet that has cost many their jobs and ongoing pressure from other sources, including politicians.

One journalist wrote to Mr Martin Baron, The Boston Globe editor who pushed for a fuller investigation into the matter and went to court to secure the release of crucial documents, to say "the story that inspired the movie serves as a wonderful, wonderful reminder why so many of us got into this business in the first place and why so many stayed despite all the gloom and doom and all the left hooks that landed squarely on our chins along the way".

But beyond journalism, there was another theme that ran through the film which struck me as profoundly moving. That theme is about finding purpose in one's work, a subject that has resonance at a time when many workers, not just journalists, feel insecure about their jobs; and in an age when motivation at work is a big concern for employers and a struggle for many of those who work.


Let me cite a scene that takes place near the end of the movie. The Globe's lead investigative reporter Michael Rezendes goes to see lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, who has waged a lonely fight on behalf of the abuse victims who are his clients. Mr Rezendes shows Mr Garabedian the articles the Globe plans to publish the next day exposing the church's wrongdoing. It is a climactic scene, coming after months of frustration and roadblocks for both men in their fight for justice against a church that has for decades exercised great sway over the community and institutions in the city of Boston.

After he finishes reading the piece, the lawyer nods, rises and says he has work to do; a client with two young children waits in the next room. He looks at the journalist and says: "You just keep doing your work." It is high praise from one man of purpose to another.

Purpose is the desire to do things in service of something larger than ourselves. In his 2009 bestseller, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, author Daniel Pink argues that extrinsic factors such as money and fear of punishment are less powerful motivators than intrinsic factors, the most important of which are autonomy, mastery and purpose.

How does purpose work? It connects us to someone or something beyond ourselves, and gives us a sense that what we do has meaning. The power of purpose has been borne out in studies such as one that Wharton Professor Adam Grant carried out at the call centre of a university fund-raising organisation. He randomly assigned employees to one of three groups.

The first group read stories from other employees describing what they perceived were the personal benefits of the job, including money and skills development. This group was tagged the Personal Benefit group.

The second group read stories from the beneficiaries of the fund-raising organisation, who described how the scholarships they obtained had changed their lives for the better. This was the Task Significance group.

The third group did not read any stories; they were the Control group.

The results: employees in the Personal Benefit and Control groups secured the same number of pledges and raised the same amount of money as they had before the intervention.

But those in the Task Significance Group earned more than twice the number of weekly pledges (from an average of nine to an average of 23) and more than twice the amount of weekly donation money (from an average of US$1,288 (S$1,767) to an average of US$3,130).

People who have purpose are motivated to pursue even the most difficult problems. "People can be inspired to meet stretch goals and tackle impossible challenges," writes Harvard Business School Professor Elizabeth Moss Kanter, "if they care about the outcome."

What explains some people's deeply felt sense of purpose, and others' total lack of it?

Purpose is rooted in a sense of connection, and what stirs feelings of connection differs from person to person. Some environmentalists, for example, feel a deep sense of connection to the forests they fight to save. Many others wonder why they bother. Whatever people feel connected to tends to draw them out of themselves, the opposite of what a culture of consumption does with its spotlighting of what the self wants, and feels it must have and must do to satisfy its cravings.

In a culture of consumption, work can become a means to satisfy those wants, and the idea of service to something greater than oneself goes out the window.

I would like to believe that a sense of purpose can be cultivated by paying attention to the needs of the world that you personally find compelling - whether it be poverty, politics or poetry - and investing time to find out how you can contribute in that particular area.

Of course you may discover that what gives you a sense of purpose is not the job you are currently doing. You may find that doing purposeful work severely crimps your current lifestyle, limiting your leisure time and income and leaving a mark on your relationships.

But if you've ever felt an urge to find something more meaningful to do with your life, perhaps it's time to follow that sense and see where it leads you.

In a column that Mr Baron wrote in The Washington Post, where he is now editor, entitled "I am in Spotlight but it's not about me", he recalls a letter he received 13 years ago from Father Thomas P. Doyle, who had long waged a lonely battle within the Church on behalf of abuse victims.

Father Doyle assures Mr Baron that "what you and the Globe have done for the victims, the Church and society cannot be adequately measured. It is momentous and its good effects will reverberate for decades".

Mr Baron writes that he "kept Father Doyle's letter on my desk in Boston until the day, three years ago, that I left to join The Washington Post. Through some very trying times for the Globe and for me, it served as a reminder of what brought me to journalism and what kept me in it.

"There had been no movie then. There had been no awards. I had felt the rewards, however, and they would last forever".

That is the voice of purpose, and it reverberates.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 27, 2016, with the headline 'Spotlight on journalism and finding purpose in work'. Subscribe