If you are a journalist, you always dream of getting a really big story that will make headlines around the world. If it happens, it is often based on a human source giving an exclusive interview. For a data journalist, however, the source will be very different - in the case of the Panama Papers revelations, it was a cache of 11.5 million documents in 2.6 terabytes of data that arrived on the desk of Süddeutsche Zeitung’s investigations team.
That requires special handling and new ways of working. For Hannes Munzinger, data journalist with the team, it also meant the story of a lifetime early in his career. In London to collect the “Be Greater With Data” Lovie Award on behalf of the newspaper, he told DataIQ about the experience.
“Data journalism projects are of very different scales,” he said. “In this case, it all started with a simple message to my colleague, Bastian Obarmayer, asking if he was interested in data. It ended up in being the biggest data leak of all time.”
Given the scale of the data and the complexity of the information it contained, Munziger joined a small group which solely focused on the story while the rest of the investigations team continued with other projects. Vanessa Wormer, head of data at Süddeutsche Zeitung, was co-opted into the team to advise on how the data should be parsed, searched and annotated. And the whole project had to be kept under wraps until the story broke.
“We were working in great secrecy,” recalls Munzinger, “not even talking to our colleagues. When they asked us what we were working on, we just had to tell them, ‘nothing much’. That went on for months.” Such was the depth and potential impact of the source material, the newspaper collaborated with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) to divide up different parts of the story. Media partners in other countries, such as The Guardian in the UK, were also brought in to ensure the insights got maximum exposure. “When the ICIJ and others joined the project, we had to find secure ways to exchange information,” Munzinger pointed out. Leaked data is only news as long as the story has not itself been leaked, after all.
As the journalists trawled through the client files of offshore advisers Mossack Fonseca, it became clear just how many stories they contained, from Vladimir Putin’s best friend - a cellist called Sergei Roldugin who is at the centre of a scheme in which money from Russian state banks is hidden offshore - through to former prime minister David Cameron’s offshore investment fund.
“We went through the documents and put together lists of names, then cross-checked them, slowly building up a picture of their financial affairs.” he recalled. Then on 4th April, the first story was published. “It was an exciting day – we were all going crazy a bit, but it all went well,” says Munzinger. Among the effects of publication was the resignation of Iceland’s prime minister, revealed to have an offshore company through which his wealth was being channelled.
Munzinger’s career started out in journalism, “but I was aware that data journalism was starting to grow and I got curious about it.” Describing himself as more journalist than coder Munzinger is nonetheless now part of an historical event that came from one of the biggest-ever data leaks.
“This was something new for all of us, but we weren’t thinking about that at the time - we were focused on producing stories. Once they came out and we saw the reaction, we realised just how big it was,” he said. Other journalists have been keen to learn from what Süddeutsche Zeitung was able to do and, while in London, Munzinger spent time at The Guardian exchanging ideas and experiences.
Considering his role in such a major journalistic enterprise, Munzinger explains: “For me, I was very focused on the data journalism. Now I can see that data stories are also investigative stories.”
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