“Spotlight” victory: J-School professors talk career milestones

By Bryce Spadafora

[Image courtesy of sbu.edu]

The 88th Academy Awards last week honored Spotlight with Best Picture, and it was a victory for journalists everywhere.

The movie, based on actual events, tells the story of a team of Boston Globe journalists who uncover a sexual abuse scandal involving Roman Catholic priests. The journalists who covered these stories went on to win the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

Professors in the Russell J. Jandoli School of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Bonaventure University have spent years working in the journalism industry. During this time, they covered and witnessed stories that impacted and influenced their careers.

For professor Patrick Vecchio, the stories he covered helped reform a statewide system, as well as had historical significance.

Vecchio started his career at the Salamanca Press in 1979. The Salamanca Press was the second smallest daily newspaper at the time. Vecchio worked there until 1982 before moving to the Olean Times Herald, his hometown paper, where he worked his way up to editor.

In his first month at the Salamanca Press, Vecchio and a colleague received a tip about a sheriff’s son shooting a suspect. The sheriff’s son, along with a corrections officer, saw a car that had ran a red light and began to chase it. The car had crashed and the driver had tried to escape on foot when the sheriff’s son shot him.

A colleague and I worked on the story that whole morning and went to press that afternoon,” said Vecchio. “We beat everybody. We beat all the local and regional papers. We beat the Buffalo papers. It was an exclusive, and it was a huge story.”

During his time at the Salamanca Press, Vecchio also worked on a series about part-time police officers in Salamanca. According to Vecchio, his work led to part-time police officers throughout New York State being trained differently. The way they were being trained before exposed their municipalities to potential lawsuits, said Vecchio.

Vecchio also covered the first murder conviction in New York State where a body was never found. State police had asked Vecchio if he wanted to go along with them and cops from every agency in New York to search for the victim’s body.

The case eventually went to trial in Buffalo. The state investigator called Vecchio as soon as the verdict was released.

That meant a lot to me because I had built up a good enough relationship with him that he called me,” said Vecchio. “Again, we sweeped everybody. It was a historically significant story.”

In some cases, professors were able to uncover corruption in their community with the stories they covered. Richard Lee, director of the Integrated Marketing Communications Program, is one of these professors.

Lee worked at the Montclair Times for five years, The Aquarian Weekly for three years and The News Tribune in New Jersey for eight years.

One story Lee covered exposed irresponsible spending by The New Jersey Highway Authority. The highway authority had proposed to double the toll rates on the Garden State Parkway from 25 cents to 50 cents. According to Lee, nobody had ever closely covered the highway authority.

Lee and colleagues received tips that the group wasn’t spending its budget responsibly. After every project the highway authority worked on there would be money left over. This leftover money would go into a numbered account.

It appeared they were deliberately overestimating the cost of projects so they could bloat this account,” said Lee.

The extra money went towards building a local amphitheater. Lee’s story focused on how the highway authority wasn’t making the best use of the money they collected. Ultimately, the toll was only raised to 35 cents.

It’s not a life or death issue,” said Lee. “But I always joke with people that when you’re driving on the Parkway you’re paying a dime less because of what I did.”

For Dr. Dennis Wilkins, there are two stories during his career that he said were important for newspapers to play a role in.

Wilkins started working for The Recorder in Greenfield, Massachusetts as a sports writer in 1970. Wilkins worked there for 20 years, spending his last five years with the newspaper as the editorial page editor.

The first story involved the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986. The Recorder, along with its sister-paper The Concord Monitor, had shared resources to cover Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher and one of the astronauts aboard the shuttle.

“It led to the most intense 24 hours of my career along with some difficult ethical decisions,” said Wilkins. “I learned an awful lot about managing material, teamwork and how necessary it is for there to exist a group of people who keep their heads when everyone else is losing theirs.”

The other story involved the unidentified body of an infant found by a state department of highways crew. The crew had found the infant’s body while emptying barrels at a local rest area, said Wilkins.

After Wilkins’ newspaper ran the story, people from the community organized and paid for the infant’s funeral.

“It was amazing to report both a tragedy, but a story of hope,” said Wilkins. “When people who had no connection with this infant stepped up to pay for expenses and give the infant a joyous sending off to wherever the infant went.”

According to professor Anne Lee, her most memorable stories told the experiences of people who had gone through difficult times. Many of these people were Holocaust survivors.

“Not one of them had the same story,” said Lee. “What always struck me was that they were such optimistic people who were happy to be alive.”

According to Lee, one story involved local high school students working on an art exhibit in honor of a woman displaced during World War II. Lee attended an event at the school to hear the woman speak about her experiences.

The woman, after being separated from her family, would wander the forest near her home during the day. At night the woman would stop at houses and ask for food. Eventually, the woman was reunited with her sister who had also been surviving on her own.

“I learned then that everybody has a story, and some stories need to be told or they will be lost,” said Lee.

According to Lee, bone marrow drives were becoming more common during that time. She and other journalists worked on stories covering the drives, who needed bone marrow and what readers could do to help.

Those were the kind of stories that made me aware that newspapers, while holding to their standards of editorial content, could do a lot of good for people,” she said.

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