Expert Commentary

Global investigative journalism collaborations: Insights on a new media paradigm

2015 paper from Harvard's Shorenstein Center exploring the increasing need for, and impact of, global collaborations among news outlets to investigate complex stories.

Financial systems, the activities of multinational corporations and crime rings can cross borders and affect multiple countries. In a time of tightened budgets, what can news outlets do to ensure that the wide-ranging effects of these international systems and entities are adequately covered? Beginning with Wikileaks and running through the National Security Agency revelations based on documents divulged by Edward Snowden, journalists have been pioneering new joint ventures in reporting complex stories that transcend parochial interests and audiences.

A 2015 paper published by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, “Anatomy of a Global Investigation: Collaborative, Data-Driven, Without Borders,” explores the increasing need for, and impact of, collaborations among news outlets. Authored by William E. Buzenberg, the former executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, the paper argues that large-scale, tech-savvy collaborations can provide a crucial and cost-effective path forward for international investigations. Buzenberg draws upon the founding successes and tactics of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), an organization that leverages big data and the skills of journalists in more than 65 countries to produce investigative reports.

The paper documents the making of ICIJ’s reports on tobacco smuggling and corporate tax avoidance, as well as their largest project to date, Swiss Leaks, which uncovered HSBC’s involvement in a range of illegal activities, including money laundering for drug cartels and blood diamond dealers, and the transfer of funds for Iran. The scale and impact of the Swiss Leaks investigation was massive: 65 media organizations mined data that had been leaked from HSBC account holders in more than 200 countries, and the publication of the report led to legislative changes in 52 countries.

Buzenberg describes the technical and cultural aspects that made ICIJ’s reporting possible, providing practical takeaways for news outlets seeking to replicate a large-scale, collaborative model. Some of his recommendations include:

  • Establish an editorial core to set the agenda and serve as a communication hub.
  • Share datasets or documents to encourage journalists to come together to gain access to something that they could not otherwise obtain.
  • Use two platforms for communication. ICIJ used encrypted platforms for: (1) viewing and downloading data, and (2) internal communications between the editorial core and the participants.
  • Keep the collaboration cost-effective. The editorial core needs funds to hire a small team to manage the data and central website, and cover the costs of software, web servers and legal expenses — but each collaborating reporter should have his or her own financial backing from the participating news organizations.
  • Have at least one face-to-face gathering to build trust among participating reporters.
  • Distribute fact-checking. ICIJ learned this lesson after years of trying to edit and fact-check all ICIJ member material. Shared data must be centrally organized and fact-checked, and participating members need to be vetted, but each news organization must be responsible for its own reporting, editing, fact-checking and libel review for the collaboration to proceed on a timely basis.
  • Joint publication is powerful. Picking a single date is not easy, but the coordinated release of reports in dozens of countries around the world can expand the impact of the reporting in any one country.

“American news organizations of all sizes could collaborate much more with other media organizations, including their competition, on local, state, regional or national enterprise or investigative stories,” Buzenberg concludes. “Many more collaborations are taking place today, but they are mostly small and too often regarded as troublesome. Meanwhile, a much deeper investigative push is possible when multiple newsrooms reach out and join forces. The attitude that ‘we know best’ and ‘we do it all ourselves’ is an increasingly antiquated notion in the digital age when knowledgeable members of the public and colleagues at other news organizations could be brought into an effective journalistic process in new ways to become part of a more robust collaborative investigative effort.”

Keywords: Wikileaks, Swiss Leaks, Edward Snowden

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