Data Journalism: Cross-Border Investigations

February 9, 2015 • Digital News, Recent, Specialist Journalism • by

Swiss Leaks’ investigation into secret HSBC banking files is the latest example in a growing list of successful cross-border journalistic collaborations. The HSBC files were obtained by an international group of news outlets, including Le Monde, the Guardian, CBS 60 Minutes and the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Their joint investigation, which involved journalists from 45 countries, revealed how the bank helped some clients hide accounts in Geneva to avoid tax. It is one of the biggest banking leaks in history, involving 30,000 accounts and £78bn of assets.

Other recent examples of collaborative investigative projects include Wikileaks’ war logs and cable files, NSA files, leaked by Edward Snowden, and Offshore Leaks. These examples share another characteristic with the Swiss Leaks’ investigation: they also revolved around a single database.

Cross-border journalism is a response to the globalisation of politics and crime 

Global collaborative journalism is a response to the increasing globalisation of politics and crime. I recently researched the subject for a report, ‘Global Database Investigations: The role of the computer-assisted reporter’ published today by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

The report examines three cross-border investigations: Farm Subsidy, Offshore Leaks and Migrants Files, to see what made them successful and what role in their success was played by computer-assisted reporters. The research involved a study of the literature as well as interviews with data journalists.

Freedom of Information used to create database of farm subsidies

The Farm Subsidy project involved journalists from across Europe, including France, Italy, Spain and Greece. They used local Freedom of Information laws to access details of beneficiaries of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. This information enabled them to create and maintain a database of “farm subsidies“. This work was also an opportunity to build a network promoting cross-border investigations and public information access.

The Offshore Leaks, run by ICIJ, which also organised the Swiss Leaks revelations, demonstrated how powerful a well-planned international investigation can be. A hundred journalists from countries including Australia, India, France, UK and Costa Rica worked in secret on 2.5 million data files. They published their work simultaneously in different media and countries. They were assisted by a team of fifteen people working on the data and managing the project.

Databases can be created

The third investigation discussed in the report is The Migrants Files. It proved that when a database doesn’t exist, it can be built. Looking at all the migrants who have died on their way to Europe, the international team of data journalists used open-source intelligence to analyse the routes where most had died. The database is regularly updated and now used as a source by non-governmental and international organizations.

From my research, I concluded that data journalism has an important role in such international collaborative projects. Data journalists can analyse the data, make it accessible to other journalists and can also help to manage projects. I found that if data journalists were physically situated either in, or close to the newsroom it could help create more successful cross-border investigations.

pic credit: Beat Strasser / Flickr Cc

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