By Hillman Hollister
For many people, the word “journalism” simply means the daily reporting of the news. This practice in its most basic form does not require a lot of digging—it involves a mix of observation, transcription, and the dissemination of daily events to people who were unable to witness them firsthand. But there is another side to reporting which is not for the faint of heart: investigative journalism. This form of reporting involves the exposure of information which has been purposely covered up. It is a grueling battle which pits the journalist against the subject, or, in the case of the Panama Papers, against thousands of subjects.
Data in the Panama Papers
The Panama Papers came into the possession of the press after an anonymous source offered up the more than 11.5 million documents as a move to highlight the importance of “whistleblowing,” the public’s responsibility to hold the powerful accountable for their actions. These documents, which made up 2.6 terabytes of data, reveal the shady dealings of a law firm in Panama known as Mossack Fonseca. This business has been a haven for the rich and powerful to hide their money from the grips of taxes and from the eyes of law enforcement officials. Ironically, many government officials have been the very people illicitly using Mossack Fonseca. Such high profile figures as Lionel Messi, Pedro Almodóvar, and Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, the Prime Minister of Iceland, have been among the names found within the Panama Papers.
Interpreting the Panama Papers
The problem with the mountain of documents handed over to the press is that they only reveal part of the story. They let us know who, what, when, and where, but leave a gaping hole in the how and why categories. It is vital to separate the bad guys from the good, and the how and why are absolutely imperative in completing this task. Who, then, is tackling this jigsaw puzzle of unprecedented scale? Leave it to the investigative journalists. A group of more than 300 people from countries all across the globe has worked tirelessly over the past year to milk the Panama Papers for all they’re worth.
The Panama Papers and Accountability Reporting
Due to its ability to hold people responsible for their actions, investigative journalism has also been dubbed accountability reporting. This is a valuable quality, but because of the extensive resources and time necessary to examine a subject on such a minute level, investigative journalism often takes a backseat to normal reporting. With any luck, the corruption revealed by the Panama Papers has reignited the public’s enthusiasm for identifying and extinguishing unethical behavior by the rich and powerful. John Doe, the anonymous source of the Panama Papers, claims that in modern times “the slaves are unaware both of their status and of their masters, who exist in a world apart where the intangible shackles are carefully hidden amongst reams of unreachable legalese.” Only through a concentrated effort in investigative journalism can the “slaves” be made aware of the unfairness ensconced in the shadows all around them.
Collaboration and the Panama Papers
In order to bypass the barriers surrounding accountability reporting (namely the large amount of effort and money required), the key appears to be collaboration. Substituting the traditional rivalry and competition between news sources for a spirit of teamwork, the consortium of reporters investigating the Panama Papers has experienced monumental success in bringing illicit behavior from Mossack Fonseca to light. This should be used as a model in the future. Though there are some classes offered in the practice of investigative journalism at European and American universities, an even higher number would serve the common good immensely. Perhaps the passion for maintaining a just society is a prerequisite for the desire to teach and learn investigative journalism to become more ubiquitous. The Panama Papers have stoked the fire.