Rejecting rivalry – Lessons from coverage of the Panama Papers

By Karmen Kert, Master student in Political Communication

2.6 terabytes of leaked data turned out to be the safety net investigative journalism desperately needed. For a long while traditional journalism has literally been “dragged” through modern times: The apparatus is new, but the way news is produced today still remain predominantly the same – where journalists work in their own news organization(s) and gather facts from the communal field of information. Fortunately, the Panama Papers – a unprecedented leak of 11.5 million documents, which brought together more than 370 journalists – has given a way to a solution which could revive investigative journalism. The answer is surprisingly simple: collaboration!

The Panama Papers have come about amidst difficult times in journalism. In 2008 study, the researchers Lewis, Williams and Franklin showed how journalists have been swallowed by the increasing workload and constraining time frames – a trend which surprisingly has not resulted in extra manpower in newsrooms. On the contrary, news firms have been downsizing against a backdrop of the boost in output, which consequently means that less people have been producing more content. Inevitably, this has also meant less time for investigative reporting. Furthermore, these trends have contributed to the state of “creative cannibalisation” (Curran, 2010), which means that journalists are “lending” stories from each other – tendency that is contributing to homogenisation, and takes away the incentive to undertake an investigation in the first place.

By summarizing the above trends it can be inferred that instead of continuing to search for scoops alone, with low success rate, journalists should give more thought to collaboration across news organizations.

A good example of a domain that is in a desperate need for more collaborative investigative reporting is financial crime aka white-collar crime reporting. Financial crimes and other illegal dealings have been happening for a long time and have cost citizens immeasurable amounts of money. The reason why these crimes and other suspicious financial practices have flown under journalists’ radar is that they have become extremely complex and elusive. To borrow a catchphrase from a movie “All the President’s Men” (1976), “follow the money” is just not a two men job anymore, or as Lloyd and Walton (1991) aptly said,

“The days are long gone when the essence of financial crime was pushing a roll of used bank notes under the toilet door to bribe some official or officer.”

This means that investigation into these sorts of wrongdoings has become almost a fool’s errand when done alone. It needs workforce, time and money – all of which haven’t been there for the taking. We have interconnected financial markets, where money travels unnoticeably across borders, constantly and fast, yet journalists haven’t kept up with the pace.

Up until now…

Clearly the reason why questionable practices of Mossack Fonseca came into light was not because journalists all around the world decided to come together and start investigating financial wrongdoings. It all happened because of the biggest data leak in history. However, what makes the Panama Papers case unique compared to other data leaks, e.g. like Wikileaks, is what journalists decided to do with this information. They collaborated. They combined the knowledge and skills to tackle the haystack and find the needles together.

Although, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has been promoting cooperation since 1997, the magnitude of the collaboration that was brought forth by the Panama Papers is unprecedented and therefore carries that much more impact. And even if this teamwork between more than 370 journalists was initially fuelled by the vast amount of data, which turned out to be too overwhelming for Süddeutsche Zeitung to handle on their own, the implications of this joint action extend further than simply how to work with extensive data.

Regardless of data leaks, journalists are still faced with global information environment that is far too rich and scattered for them to navigate alone. To sieve all the important bits and pieces out from a torrent of information, especially when it comes to trailing money, collaboration is dearly needed. However, this conjoined effort should not be limited only to tracing money. It should carry over to other realms of possible interests of investigative journalism, for example to politics, which is also global in scope, interconnected, and full of stories waiting to be revealed.

Considering all the limitations mentioned above, rivalry in journalism does not seem to serve much of a purpose anymore. Lack of time and money alongside the complex information environment indicate the futility of uncovering important stories alone. Yet stories are out there, need to be told, and the coverage of Panama Papers has demonstrated that collective effort might be the key.

References

  1. Curran, J. (2010). The future of journalism. Journalism Studies, 11(4), 464-476.
  2. Lewis, J., Williams, A., & Franklin, B. (2008). Four rumours and an explanation: A political economic account of journalists’ changing newsgathering and reporting practices. Journalism Practice, 2(1), 27-45.
  3. Lloyd, C., & Walton, P. (1999). Reporting corporate crime. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 4(1), 43-48.