So you’ve decided to share your sensitive source information with strange or rival news outlets in several foreign countries, and to trust that you won’t be scooped.
What could go wrong?
Attendees of the 11th Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Hamburg heard that things can indeed go awry within the fast-growing, cross-border collaboration model for large investigative stories. But breach of trust has not been one of them, according to speakers from five very different news organizations that have tried the “radical sharing” approach, where editors share all information with each other, with total transparency.
Instead the journalists have encountered other problems, including miscommunication between teams; varying national laws governing the same covertly taped conversation; or a junior reporter from, say, a TV partner accidentally tipping off the wrongdoer too soon about an ongoing investigation.
The main take-away: collaborations are working, and working well, for stories of almost any scale. And that none of the roughly 300 media partners mentioned had knowingly betrayed or scooped any other partner.
Paul Radu, director of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, presented the Troika Laundromat, a collaboration between 23 news organizations that processed a mountain of “dirty” data to expose a massive bank laundering scheme.
Svea Eckert, a reporter with Germany’s NDR TV, presented the extraordinary Fake Science collaboration, in which media partners exposed predatory publishing scams within their home countries. One of those partners, Boyoung Lim, a reporter at KCIJ Newstapa, explained how the Korea-specific data mined by NDR had triggered a seismic story in South Korea, because a strikingly high proportion of academics duped by the fake journals and science conferences turned out to be Korean.
Axel Gordh Humlesjö, a reporter with Sweden’s SVT broadcaster, set out the “radical sharing” journey that allowed five media partners to reveal that the United Nations had covered up the murders of two of their own staff in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The collaboration featured a variety of media formats, including Radio France, Le Monde, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and Foreign Policy.
Scilla Alecci, Asia coordinator of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), illustrated the potential scale of the cross-border model with the Implant Files, a massive investigation into faulty medical devices that featured more than 250 reporters from 36 countries.
Despite the different scales and topics of the investigations, several common strategies emerged between the collective, award-winning efforts:
- Teams crunching international data split it into country-specific chunks – both to make it more digestible but also to “sell” the story’s relevance to audiences around the world;
- New partners were also invited to test or challenge the hypothesis of the original data team.
- Unexpected benefits of collaboration emerged for all the projects, like the cross-promotion of each other’s stories and new, other-language audiences. The SVT team discovered that the model also provided “cover” for at-risk reporters on the ground, which was important as their story implicated the Congolese military in the murders. The collaboration allowed their unnamed Congolese partner reporters to claim that they were just “reporting on the reporting” of foreign news outlets when the story came out.
- Partners were chosen with great care, and often half-way through the investigation, as reporting needs arose. Humlesjö said: “The biggest things I learned about collaboration is: ‘who do you need to be successful; who do you not need? When you work with a sensitive leak from the United Nations and sources in the Congo could be killed at any minute, it was important that we had partners we could look in the eye and really trust. We invited Foreign Policy magazine in the middle of the project because we realized we needed somebody on the ground in New York with good UN contacts, and who could work that angle on the ground.
- The partners found that the agreed-upon timing of various deadlines was crucial. For instance, the United Nations cover-up collaboration had joint deadlines for the end of the research phase; another for “going public” to the subjects; and then a date when all foreign staff should be physically out of the DRC for safety reasons.
- In all cases, the publishing and broadcast deadlines had to be firm. Radu said: “You need a firm date for publication, even though its tempting to move. People will say: ‘Oh, I have a TV program that can’t run that Friday; can’t we wait till Monday?’ No, there will always be pressure, no matter the week – don’t cave into it.”
- Teams found that different laws and rules can apply to the publication of the same data in cross-border projects. Humlesjö said that, at one point, the team had learned with dismay that a key covert tape recording of a UN official might be illegal in certain U.S. states — where their partner Foreign Policy magazine is based — even though they were fully legal for the other four partners. Would they have to sacrifice the evidence? In the end, Humlesjö said lawyers helped them find a “work-around.” Meanwhile, Radu said western partners need to understand that reporters in Russia, for instance, must first submit their interviews with officials for review.
- Journalists found that the small figures in the data — say, a $300 payment here and there across bank statements — were often more useful as story leads than the large figures. However, their small size also meant that automated data sifting systems might miss them, and that reporters sometimes needed to go through the documents manually.
- Almost all the projects started with an initial small data team, which established the narrative before sharing and building with partners. Radu said: “Don’t waste the time of other reporters by co-opting them to something you don’t really know. Put serious work into the initial phase of the project.”
- Most of the projects discovered that communication between the teams was very important, and complex. Their senior journalists often wound up receiving the deluge of phone calls and emails from partners checking in. Humlesjö said that — were he to do the story over again — he would have asked the partners to appoint a single project coordinator, who would handle communications.
- Sharing your complete story with a large, domestic media partner at the 11th hour can be effective in terms of maximizing impact – but problematic in terms of communication. Lim said Newstapa’s decision to partner with Korean broadcaster MBC had led to immediate impact: “The day after story published, universities opened investigations and disciplinary actions; the government withdrew a minister’s nomination, and search terms for [our story] topped real-time search in [the region] for several months. MBC’s bigger resources and reach helped, and the government reacts more sensitively to reports from public broadcasters.” However, Lim said confusion about the complex story at MBC had caused a communications bottleneck close to deadline.
Humlesjö said collaboration was rapidly becoming the default model for pursuing large stories: “For example, we have started to cooperate not only internationally but also nationally, because this has really showed us how effective and useful it is to cooperate instead of competing.”
Rowan Philp was chief reporter for South Africa’s Sunday Times for a decade; a period bookended by fellowships at the Washington Post and MIT. Rowan has reported from 27 countries, and his 2014 investigative report revealing Russia’s secret effort to sell 8 nuclear reactors to the South African government for some $70 billion was credited for a role in the scrapping of that deal last year. He is a regular contributor to GIJN.