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Trends in Newsrooms #7: The growing importance of global collaborative investigative journalism

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Trends in Newsrooms #7: The growing importance of global collaborative investigative journalism

National and international reporting done by one newsroom is no longer enough to cope with the challenges of investigations that increasingly involve transnational connections and big volumes of data. 

As corruption and organised crime go global, so does muckraking, and investigative journalism built on innovative collaborative initiatives continues to pop up around the world.

One of the most important trends in contemporary journalism

It is a cultural change that is still in the works, but it has already become one of the most important trends in contemporary journalism. At the forefront is the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), a hub of almost 100 organisations of journalists from about 50 countries. GIJN was the brainchild of Brant Houston, a veteran American journalist, when he was the executive-director of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE). IRE is the largest association of its kind in the world.

Houston saw a need for need for a network between organisations like IRE that were emerging in different parts of the world. He imagined that the network would facilitate the muckrakers’ job. "Cross-border investigations are the only way to truly follow the money in a global economy,” says Houston. “So many local investigative stories quickly require contacts, information or colleagues in other countries, whether it's health, pharmaceuticals, energy, agribusiness or environment."

A Ukrainian case study in global collaborative investigative journalism

When reporters in Ukraine entered Viktor Yanukovych’s palace outside Kiev earlier this year, hours after the deposed president left Ukraine, they found a trove of documents shredded and floating on a lake. Their attitude is the best example of the cultural change in journalism that puts collaboration above competition. Reporters immediately united to create a collaborative, cross-border project they called “Operation Yanukovych Leaks”. It was also there in Kiev, during GIJN’s 2011 Congress, that Italian journalists were inspired to create their own organisation, Investigative Reporting Project Italy (IRPI).

As a member of International Consortium of Investigative Journalism’s (ICIJ) advisory board since the organisation began in 1997, I’ve seen first-hand how intrepid investigative reporters from around the globe overcome language, cultural and stylistic differences to embrace the idea of cross-border collaboration. They have shared in many amazing transnational investigations that would have never been possible without ICIJ’s collaborative platform.

Offshore leaks: the biggest international collaborative project in journalism's history

It was under the leadership of Bill Buzenberg, CPI’s executive-director, and Gerard Ryle, ICIJ director, that the largest and most ambitious cross-border investigative journalism project was recently developed. As Ryle investigated local fraud in his native Australia, he became interested in offshore tax havens. Eventually, he received a leak, a huge volume of data containing the records of secretive offshore accounts. Those secret accounts in fiscal havens are normally used by rich people who want to avoid or evade taxation in their countries, as well as by international criminal organisations.

The pack that was leaked to Ryle had 2.5 million files of 30 years of offshore financial activities of about 120,000 people from 170 countries. Like the Ukrainian reporters who entered Yanukovych’s palace, Ryle knew he could count on ICIJ’s well-established culture of global collaboration. It is hard to imagine any other structure in the world capable of dealing with the extraordinary volume of sensitive data Ryle obtained. It was 170 times larger than the Wikileaks trove of US military and diplomatic documents.

In a long and meticulous process, the ICIJ team worked with 112 journalists and many newspapers from more than 60 countries to decipher and analyse the vast amount of highly complex data. The result was dozens of well-checked, high-quality stories published by some of the best newspapers in the world, which had an even bigger repercussion in international media.

The technical challenge was how to clean and present the data to the public in a friendly and accessible way. ICIJ member Giannina Segnini, then head of the investigative reporting team at Costa Rica’s newspaper La Nación, led an international team that solved this puzzle, coming up with a big database that could be open to the public for easy review with interactive data visualisations.

The "offshore leak" has probably become the largest cross-border collaborative project in the history of journalism. It was preceded, however, by many other transnational investigative stories conducted by ICIJ members. Those projects would be hard for any news organisation to conduct alone and included topics such as tobacco smuggling, the underground commerce of human dead bodies for medical implants, and the devastation caused by illegal fishing.

As organised crime goes global, so must collaborative investigative journalism

It has been in the area of corruption and organised crime that collaborative cross-border initiatives have had a big boost lately. Founded in Southeast Europe, the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) has fostered the creation and development of many investigative journalism organisations from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. OCCRP has been working in partnership with many other international organisations dedicated to cross-border journalistic collaboration.

One spinoff of OCCRP that has also stimulated this kind of collaborative work is the Investigative Dashboard, a digital platform created to help investigative journalists and researchers from around the world. The Dashboard offers three tools to help investigations on organised crime and corruption: a crowd-sourced database of “persons of interest and their business connections;” a worldwide list of more than 400 online databases and business registers in 120 nations and jurisdictions; and a research desk that helps journalists and researchers to find information and sources.

So far, many newsrooms all over the world have benefited from transnational innovative mechanisms of collaboration. We are just scratching the surface of immense opportunities to create more cross-border journalistic projects that would be unimaginable years ago, before the spread of digital communication tools that facilitate journalists located in different countries or continent to work together in an efficient, virtually costless way. Globalisation has just arrived in our newsrooms, blurring the borders between national and international coverage and allowing journalists to collaborate in new and effective ways, beyond their geographic, cultural and language differences. This new culture of cross-border collaborations is here to stay.

Note: You can read this article in full, including case studies on the Italian IRPI project and Ukraine's Yanukovychleaks in the report Trends in Newsrooms 2014. The report, edited by Julie Posetti, is available here (free to WEF and WAN-IFRA members). In part 1 of this Trends in Newsrooms blog series, we provided an overview of the top 10 newsrooms trends of 2014, in part 2, we profiled trend 1: the urgent need to shield journalism in the Age of Surveillance. In part 3 we addressed trend 2: the rebooting of mobile strategy. The fourth installment of the blog series tackles trend 3: Back to basics with social media verification. The post on Trend 4: Analytics - when data drives the newsroom is hereTrend 5: Newspapers begin to challenge broadcasters in online video storytelling is available here and you can read the post on Trend 6: The rise (and fall) of women editors here.

Author

Julie Posetti's picture

Julie Posetti

Date

2014-08-07 11:55

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The World Editors Forum is the organisation within the World Association of Newspapers devoted to newspaper editors worldwide. The Editors Weblog (www.editorsweblog.org), launched in January 2004, is a WEF initiative designed to facilitate the diffusion of information relevant to newspapers and their editors.


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