How ICIJ established a new model for cross-border reporting

(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons)

In the fall of 1998, powerhouse journalists from a few dozen countries met for the first time in a small room at Harvard University. Most were accustomed to working on their own projects, in their own newsrooms and nations. They had been brought there by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)–at the time just a fledgling offshoot of the Center for Public Integrity. The ICIJ’s mission was to unite these high-flying reporters to do sweeping cross-border investigations, resulting in regional stories by each publication and big-picture takes by the central hub in Washington, DC.

The team would go on to investigate some of the world’s most powerful players–big tobacco, the World Bank, and high-ranking government officials–in the process building a fresh model to support hard-hitting journalism. A report released this month by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center touted the model and its growing number of success stories as a game-changer for cross-border journalism. The report’s author, Shorenstein fellow and former CPI head Bill Buzenberg, found that the ICIJ partnerships boosted the level of reporting in international investigations, tying together information that might otherwise remain distant scraps of a larger, unseen story.

It’s a pack of wolves, and the power of the pack in the wild is much, much greater.

The group’s first project, published in 2000, focused on tobacco companies’ role in smuggling cigarettes, often into poor countries. The series yielded 40 stories in 10 countries. Each subsequent investigation grew in strength, leading to a stream of stories this February about alleged misdeeds by HSBC Private Bank in Switzerland and its high-profile clients. It took more than 170 journalists from 56 countries to analyze leaked data on 100,000 banking clients in 200 countries. Buzenberg’s report points to this project, called “Swiss Leaks,” as a defining moment for the ICIJ, heralding a new era for a model that deserves more traction.

CJR spoke with Buzenberg about the findings of his report, as well as what the ICIJ model means for investigative journalists. This conversation has been edited for clarity.

One of the ICIJ’s greatest strengths seems to be its ability to coordinate the efforts of large numbers of journalists. How does something like “Swiss Leaks,” which relied on a huge database of names and banking information, come together?

It looks unwieldy to have 170 people, but if you give them the data and they do their own investigation, they have a great story. You’re sharing information with everyone and then you’re agreeing to publish on the same date all over the world.

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The Guardian was probably the best example. HSBC had started to file a motion against The Guardian that would have shut down [the story] pre-publication, which you can do in the UK. But once the bank started getting inquiries from all over the world, they realized shutting down The Guardian would not do anything to this story. So they dropped it, and The Guardian, of course, went ahead.

Several journalists [from the project] said: “I used to be a lone-wolf investigative reporter, but now, with this project, I’m part of a pack.” It’s a pack of wolves, and the power of the pack in the wild is much, much greater.

The members of the investigative consortium are really the Jedi Knights of the investigative world.

How might the story have been different if not for this concerted international effort?

I think it would have been impossible to do. The original HSBC data actually was stolen and given to the French government. The French government leaked it to Le Monde. Le Monde had it, but they said to us, “We can’t deal with 120,000 names all over the world. We can deal with the French names. We need you to come in and make this work in every country at the same time.”

Doesn’t the size of the investigative team lead to more potential errors?

The members of the investigative consortium are really the Jedi Knights of the investigative world. You have the top people in country after country working on this project. Could there be errors? Of course. But is it based on data? Is the data published? Is it solid? Yes.

With the results, I think, the proof is in the pudding. They produced so much excellent work that it held up, because it’s all factual.

You make note of La Nación in Costa Rica, which pushed heavily for computer-assisted reporting during “Offshore Leaks,” an ICIJ project published in 2011. Have we seen innovations, or a wider adoption of journalistic tools, come out of ICIJ work?

They had data people, but they saw the need for developers–really top-notch computer experts–to work with them as an integral part of the team, and that’s what they started doing with the very first “Offshore Leaks” project. They were able to go through unstructured data, and that’s a huge task that took them about six to eight months to do. That team [of engineers] then left La Nación, and we hired them at ICIJ. They were ready, then, for the next big sets of data that came down from Luxembourg leaks and Swiss leaks.

I believe that The New York Times and others who do this at a top level clearly work with computer experts. It’s not journalists with the skills of computer-assisted reporting, but it’s using the software developers and people who can put an algorithm together to make that part of the journalistic process. That’s what La Nación created in that model. I think it’s served ICIJ extremely well.

You say this kind of partnership should become more of a standard in domestic and even local reporting. At the same time, we don’t have the language barriers that you say lessen the sense of competition between outlets in Europe. Do you think we really could get around that here and, if so, how?

So many stories aren’t just state stories or local stories. They’re national and international stories. And if you can create a coalition, or a consortium, to tackle it using the same data, you can have a much bigger impact and do a better job. Is it doable? Yes, I believe it’s doable. Is it a lot of work? Yes, it is, and it means giving up some central control in a way, too. I don’t know that American journalists want to work that way.

It isn’t me and my notebook going out, taking notes, and coming back and writing up the story. It’s data, it’s coordinated digitally, and it’s working virtually anywhere in the world where you can work and pull people together.

 

Can you point to something that might change their minds?

Who can mount 170 reporters in 65 news organizations working for six months? Nobody can pay for that today in our legacy media world. But through a consortium, you can have everybody cover their own costs. So maybe the economics will drive this in some form, if editors realize that we need a bigger watchdog.

The technology has changed this so much. It isn’t me and my notebook going out, taking notes, and coming back and writing up the story. It’s data, it’s coordinated digitally, and it’s working virtually anywhere in the world where you can work and pull people together.

Communication was key in pushing forward stories on the 40,000 names in Asia that surfaced in “Offshore Leaks.” ICIJ’s Chinese partners abandoned the project, which found that some of the country’s leaders had funneled money into the British Virgin Islands. What happened there?

It was one of the first times you have ever had a collaboration of mainland Chinese reporters, Taiwanese reporters, Hong Kong reporters, American and British and German reporters all in the same room working on a project. When the Chinese government got wind of this, they basically made it clear to the Chinese partner–which we haven’t named–that they should pull out. And they did pull out immediately.

But the rest of us did the reporting and published those Chinese names. It was a very big story in China. The Chinese government shut down all of the different websites that were carrying this. … ICIJ also translated it into Mandarin, made it a PDF, and it circulated on email, so the story did get out.

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Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha