(*_ When a new investigation is launched bearing the International Consortium of Investigative Journalismists’ name, the world usually pays attention.
The ICIJ’s vast projects span continents and deal with large document sets with a broad scope — in some cases, tens to millions of records. It’s difficult to conceptualize. The Panama Papers , and Paradise Papers are common references to the nonprofit’s projects.
In October, the group launched its latest investigation: Pandora Papers , which examines the world of offshore finance as well as the people and countries who are affected by illicit money going offshore. More than 11.9 million financial records were secured in the Pandora Papers. Ensuing stories took readers behind the scenes of a financial company in South Dakota with international clients and an Ohio nursing home — the organizations and the humans behind the data.
Journalists believe that documents are only part of the reporting process. Here is where the journey starts.
When Gerard Ryle was first hired to lead the ICIJ 10 years ago, the organization looked a lot different.
“At that time, the ICIJ consisted of four full-time employees in a basement in Washington, D.C.” he stated. “Our budget was about $600,000. You couldn’t really do much with it.”
The ICIJ was started by investigative journalist Charles Lewis in 1997 as a “network for journalists” and part of the Center for Public Integrity. Ryle saw the potential for a new model when he was hired. What if the ICIJ discovered great stories around the globe and partnered up with media outlets all over the world? The goal was a barter: the ICIJ would trade documents and data resources in exchange for the use of reporters from news organizations and publication of the final product.
The mission was not always easy to achieve. ICIJ’s early successes were largely due to its willingness to experiment. Ryle learned that reporters should approach Ryle with potential stories, rather than editors.
I learned through trial and error that bosses don’t like ideas. Their reaction was “We don’t need it, we won’t want it,” Ryle stated. A reporter will tell you a different story if you present it to them. The reporter wants the story, and therefore they will do the advocacy for you with the organization.”
ICIJ had its “big breakthrough” in 2013, according to Ryle, with the publication of “Offshore Leaks.” It was a test of the nonprofit’s model. They could get “lone wolves” investigative reporters to collaborate and share their reporting with others.
You are trying to teach these secretive people around to share, Ryle stated. “We’ll invite everyone to one of these projects. But, whatever you see, share it with everyone in the group Ryle had an idea that now seems quaint: create document clusters in global hubs, and then have reporters fly in to go through the papers. He said that it didn’t work. Cloud-based technology was essential for sharing information remotely.
“We didn’t have the resources or money to do this,” he explained. “Once we showed the model could work, we just became more sophisticated.”
That led the ICIJ to build an online newsroom based on open-source software designed for a dating site and a search system originally built for librarians. Their technology is capable of ingesting millions of documents and sharing them with journalists around the globe.
This is when stories emerge from patterns found within records.
Washington Post reporter Debbie Cenziper first learned about the Pandora Papers over a lunch meeting with Ryle in the early winter of 2020.
It only took Cenziper one sentence to get interested in the Pandora Papers. Ryle said to her, “This is more than the Panama Papers.” This, along with the assurance that the documents contained American names, was sufficient.
Ryle only had the documents shortly before his meeting with Cenziper. The reporters of ICIJ were all occupied. He was the only one left. He spent his Christmas break poring through the records and emerged convinced of their importance, bearing a 3,000-word memo to prove it.
For Cenziper, an experienced investigative journalist with a Pulitzer under her belt, the idea of 11.9 million records was almost impossible to grasp.
“How do you go through 11.9 million documents, even with the 600 journalists that are working on this project?” she said. It’s like a LexisNexis Search on steroids
The first hurdle was to figure out how to search for the documents to get best results. There were many questions left to be answered once a name was discovered. What is their background? What year did they open this offshore account? What information would an offshore provider have about the background of the individual?
But this wasn’t just a tale about financials. This was the story of real people who were being hurt by money moving offshore.
” The Washington Post team knew very early that this was not a story about wealthy individuals moving their money offshore. Cenziper said, “That story has been told before and it’s been well told. We really wanted to show the hurt that can be caused when illicit wealth is moved offshore.”
Cenziper is also a professor at Northwestern University, where she tells her students that sources rarely meet reporters in a parking garage with secret documents gifted “with a red bow on top.” But it was almost like that in the case of the Pandora Papers, give or take the hours spent combing through the records looking for anything that might help.
I call it “wading in the muck.” Cenziper stated. But you do it because of your gut instinct. You don’t want to leave any stone unturned.” You don’t want any stone unturned .”
When ICIJ partners up with news organizations, there are two requirements: Reporters must share their findings with the team, and stories must be published the same day.
We don’t make decisions about what’s important or not for your country,” Ryle stated.
The organization is open-minded about who it will partner with. They are trying to find a news station, a newspaper, and a television news program. Ryle is aware that The New York Times will not share information with The Washington Post. The case of the Pandora Papers was ICIJ secured The Washington Post and Frontline PBS, as well as other international partners.
“They were all sharing,” Ryle said, “which is quite a feat.”
While Ryle is enthusiastic about ICIJ’s model, he doesn’t see it as the future of all of journalism. It’s more like one type of journalism.
It doesn’t work with every story,” he stated. It is important to choose the right topic. It works, it works amazing But it doesn’t always work These stories must be global in scope and address larger issues such as the environment, food security, or medicine. It cannot be one issue in one country.
But he fears that ICIJ may be the victim of its success. As an independent nonprofit — ICIJ officially split from the Center for Public Integrity in 2017 — that has achieved a level of fame within the industry, funders assume ICIJ is in a better financial state than it is. The nonprofit continues to spend its budget on ambitious projects. Ryle must let go of some freelancers who were involved in the Pandora Papers.
Everyone thinks that we are in a great place, because we do such high-profile projects,” Ryle said. “I try to keep pointing out to our funders that we are in a great position because we do these high-profile projects. Can you imagine what we could do if we had proper funding ?'”
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