Investigative journalism plays an important role in uncovering corruption, human rights abuses and other forms of wrong-doing by people in power.

Carolyne M. Lunga

It has a history of bringing about reforms, policy change and resulting in arrests of corrupt politicians and business people and the downfall of corrupt governments.

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, known as Covid-19, has shown that there is more power and impact in newsrooms and journalists collaborating than in working individually.

There is empirical evidence of research done in Europe, America and Australia which shows that there are more benefits in collaborating which is what this article seeks to discuss.

The Panama Papers (2017), Paradise Papers (2017), West African Leaks (2017), Gupta Leaks (2017) are such examples among others.

As the world continues to battle the outbreak of Covid-19, a lot of changes have negatively impacted the role of journalism in informing the public and uncovering corruption.

Journalists have been forced to work remotely, which has brought about difficulties in accessing information and reporting issues in the public interest.

Some newsrooms and fact checking networks have started collaborating in order to ensure that citizens are kept up to date on issues that matter to them.

By collaborating, diverse stories are told better and supported with data.
A number of newsrooms in Oregon in the United States of America (USA) including Bend Bulletin, Statesman Journal among others are collaborating.

Because of its adversarial nature, investigative journalism is under threat and as the commercial model of journalism has broken down and more and more journalists are being retrenched and made redundant.

In addition, governments are enacting legislation which make it difficult for journalists to access information and carry out their work and artificial intelligence or propaganda bots are being used to discredit journalism.

The Panama Papers investigation has been described by scholars as the largest global collaborative investigative journalism project in the history of investigative journalism involving more than 80 countries and almost 400 journalists.

It also had the biggest leak amounting to 2.6TB of data from a Panamanian Law firm called Mossack Fonseca, leaked by an anonymous source.

The data involved emails, passports, and anonymous shell companies’ papers.

Journalists exploited the affordances of technology in order to communicate with each other and share leads and tips via encrypted channels.

This enabled journalists involved to avoid leakage of information, in a context in which keeping secrets has become very difficult due to traces/metadata left by communicating electronically via email or phone.

By using encrypted communication channels, journalists are able to avoid mass and targeted surveillance which threaten their privacy and safety in this era with great risks and fear of reprisal in response to their revelations.

The rise of non-profit investigative journalism organisations such as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) which was behind Panama Papers, supported by donor funding is contributing to the flourishing of investigative journalism during these difficult times and more and more such nonprofits are playing a leading role in order to save journalism.

With this example of Panama Papers, and many others, investigative journalists have more power in collaborating in order to tell high impact stories and drive change in public life.

They can share tools, resources and skills.

Artificial intelligence can be employed to organise and understand complex datasets that include millions of documents and leaked audio files. Organisations such as Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), can assist in providing access to information about criminal networks, knowledge management systems capable of tracking billions of entities around the world.

OCCRP’s Aleph system is a global archive of research material, allowing journalists to search and track people, companies, real estate, court archives and more and this is a valuable tool for investigative journalists.

Collaboration platforms and networks of journalists such as ICIJ and others can assist in finding collaborating partners transnationally.

As more and more conversations are being held about the benefits of collaboration, a number of factors will need to be considered by newsrooms that are looking into exploring this new model of doing investigative journalism.

For example, how will these collaborations be financed?

Collaboration requires reliable and trustworthy partners so that information does not leak before the time of publishing. Former competitors should also be willing to work together if they are to restore trust in journalism.

What criteria should news organisations employ to determine whether an issue must be done in concert with others or alone?

Who decides on the best person to become the editorial coordinator and how do they negotiate the conflict arising from players who have different methods and cultures of doing journalism?

If answers to these are found it is safe to say that media organisations which do not collaborate will find themselves lagging behind and unable to carry out their fourth estate role.

Carolyne Lunga is a PhD researcher at City, University of London and Graduate Teaching Assistant for International News.

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