How the Panama Papers transformed the ICIJ and journalism

David Reed, director of research and editor-in-chief, DataIQ

Exactly a year ago, readers of the world’s media discovered that many leading politicians - along with industrialists, celebrities and stars - had been busy hiving off funds into offshore trusts and business interests. Following 12 months of secret analysis and research, led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ), the story of the Panama Papers broke and became a global scandal.

Based on a leaked cache of 11.5 million documents relating to the law firm Mossack Fonseca (among others), the papers did not just make headlines (although to date over 4,700 articles based on the information have been published). The revelations also triggered 115 official investigations in 79 countries with 6,000 people finding themselves under the legal spotlight.

Mar Cabra, ICIJ“I have not seen any other investigation with such a profound impact. It is the most important project we have done in terms of the scale and impact on organisations, journalism and the world,” recalled Mar Cabra, head of the data unit at ICIJ, in an interview with DataIQ ahead of an anniversary presentation to a committee of the Spanish Congress. 

As well as media interest and police follow-up, the Panama Papers have also changed the status of ICIJ itself. Previously a not-for-profit based in Washington DC and backed for the last 19 years by the Centre for Public Integrity, since February of this year, ICIJ has gone into NFP start-up mode. It now has to raise its funding from commercial activities and also via a crowdfunding appeal (for information and to make a donation, go to https://www.gofundme.com/icijorg2017).

“The Panama Papers helped that to happen because our name and importance grew so much. We decided it was better to become independent,” said Cabra. Working on the papers helped to prove that a new, collaborative, non-competitive approach to data-driven, global stories could be possible. Acting as the ringholder between 400 journalists based in 100 media outlets in 80 countries - all working in secret for a year before the story went live - showed what the Consortium was capable of achieving. 

“One of the reasons why it was successful was that the ICIJ acted as a neutral partner - the Switzerland of journalism,” she said. By creating a coalition of media interests, ICIJ allowed each individual outlet to have its own national exclusives, but within the framework of a global story.

What ICIJ also offered was the data and technology platform to support the work of those journalists, all with its own information security safeguards to prevent premature release of the data. “Our data team was created three years before the Panama Papers in response to other leaks in 2012 and 2013, like the 230GB of data from Switzerland in the Offshore Leaks, followed by the Luxembourg Leaks and the Bahama Leaks,” recalled Cabra. At the time, the organisation used external technical support, but in 2014 it realised the need to take it in-house, hiring in two software engineers (and more recently a third). “They helped us to develop a structure and set of tools that we later used on the Panama Papers,” she said. This has also allowed the full data set to be put online for reference and citizen journalists to explore (see https://offshoreleaks.icij.org).

Among the technical challenges involved was converting three million PDFs into searchable data. Much of this was done using open source software, such as Neo4J, the graph analytics solution that allows connections to be mapped and understood. 

Seeing the effect which the leak had may have transformed the consortium, but it has not altered its vision. “ICIJ is a media organisation - our mission is still to produce great investigative reporting. Technology is a means to an end for us, we are not focused on being a software house,” said Cabra. But its experiences with analysing large volumes of data have also shown that stories can be made much bigger if handled the right way, not least because individual media outlets are unlikely to want to create their own inffrastructure to do the work that was necessary for a story like the Panama Papers. 

That also means that, when whistleblowers and leakers have a cache of data, they can be more confident of it making a big splash. Typically, leaks are given to individual titles - HSBC’s papers went to Le Monde first, the Panama Papers arrived at Süddeutsche Zeitung. “We want those media owners to come to us to develop the material,” noted Cabra.

In this way, ICIJ is able to grow its influence and activities, but without having to hire extensively. “You don’t have to work for us to work with us,” as Cabra put it. “We only employed 20 of fhe 400 journalists who worked on the Panama Papers. They can get to apply their knowledge locally and we can help them to gain global perspective.”

Among the other permanent consequences seen elsewhere has been the creation by a group of NGOs of the Open Ownership database which puts into the public domain information about the individuals who really sit behind anonymous offshore trusts and businesses. This is exactly the kind of exposure which those concerned had been trying to avoid by moving their affairs into offshore domains and is slowly leading to a reduction in such secrecy.

While those individuals put pressure on governments - themselves often embarrassed by the leaks - to act against breaches of information security, Cabra believes there is no stopping now. “It is clearly a trend. Massive data leaks are the new normal in journalism. Making information available has become much easier. In the process, journalists have become better positioned to deal with it and break it down into stories. Journalists have always had to be creative - we will see more of this in the future.”

Related articles: The new data jobs: Data journalist - Hannes Munzinger

Director of research and editor-in-chief, DataIQ
An expert commentator on all things data, David has been editor of DataIQ since its inception in 2011.

Sign-up to hear about the latest DataIQ news, content and events.