By Maria Jose Valero
Marina Walker Guevera, an Alfred Friendly Fellow from Argentina in 2002 and a Missouri School of Journalism alumna, co-managed the Panama Papers, one of the largest collaborative investigative projects in journalism history.
Marina decided to become an investigative reporter while working on her master’s project at MU and now is deputy director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a Washington D.C.-based network of nearly 200 investigative journalists from more than 65 countries who collaborate on in-depth investigative stories.
For the Panama Papers project, Marina and ICIJ Director Gerard Ryle managed the reporters, researchers, data experts, fact-checkers and editors in the organization along with several hundred contributing reporters. Marina recently talked via Skype to a group of students at the Missouri School of Journalism, and here are excerpts from their conversation:
“We had an incredible technological challenge even though we already had some experience wrestling with big amounts of data. it has never been as big as this one, 2.6 terabytes.”
The leak included documents like emails, passports, corporate records, and financial spreadsheets from a multinational law firm based in Panama, Mossack Fonseca. Marina told the students about the technological challenges they faced with the substantial amount of data they had to go through. It took the team a full year to analyze, verify, interpret, report and write about the 11.5 million leaked files.
“That’s the advantage of having that local knowledge. Some of the best investigative reporters around the world all contributing in some sort of crowd-sourcing fashion.”
They set up a “virtual newsroom” that looked like a Facebook page so that journalists around the world could share their findings and talk about their progress. This virtual newsroom used encryption to authenticate the identity of the people accessing the site, as it was strictly for the eyes of the journalists involved in the project.
“We wanted it to be something that people are comfortable using. So, we called it the Facebook of Investigative Journalism. You would log in, there is a wall, and there is an avatar for each member and you can write your status, although most people don’t do that. They use it to share their findings in small topic groups we created. That’s the place where, you couldn’t talk to anyone else about what you were doing, but you could log in there and talk to your 375 other reporters in this team and share your findings or your frustrations there”
Although some of the journalists involved wanted to immediately expose the injustices they were seeing in the documents, Marina and Gerard kept all their information secret until a sufficient amount of the documents had been analyzed and fact checked, and once there had been a broad discussion as to how to tell the story. They could not even talk to the people or organizations mentioned in the leaks. It was late in the process when the journalists were able question their targets, although there was always a sense of caution and reservation.
“From the very beginning journalists were required to sign an agreement where one of the things was: this is a confidential project, shut up. You would not speak about it. Be mindful of your security”
The journalists carefully fact-checked every piece of data they planned to use to make sure the information was legitimate. Marina assured the students all the data from the leaks matched with what they found out themselves independently. The team also had many conversations on how to effectively explain and give context to the data. One of the main takeaways, Marina says, is the fact that most of these activities were legal, which exposes a systematic problem with governments around the world.
“The biggest trouble is that a lot of this is legal, and that is part of the story. It’s the system and the laws designed by those same politicians that use the system that allows this kind of secrecy and this kind of shady business that, in the end, undermine the world economy and create more inequality”
Marina said this effort demonstrates that journalists can work together, rather than always think of other journalists as the competition. Considering the WikiLeaks activity, the Edward Snowden leak and now the Panama Papers leak, Marina believes this is the “golden era” for investigative journalism, in which journalists with data skills can work together and use advanced technology to make sense of huge amounts of leaked data that would not have been possible in the past.
“The technological effort lasted for a year because we had to share it, because our model at ICIJ it’s not that we get the documents and we do the story through Washington, it’s that we prove to the world that journalists can work together, and that journalists are actually better off when they work together, when they share, than when they try to fool everyone. This is about relationships”
The documents revealed the secret owners of bank accounts and companies in 21 offshore jurisdictions. The initial project, Secrecy for Sale: Inside the Offshore Money Maze, exposed injustices, triggered protests and caused government resignations.
“To see those protests in Iceland, Malta and the UK… people going to the streets throwing yogurt at the parliament… to see the resignations… it has been really incredible”
Marina says they were only waiting to publish a set of stories that were able to make a change, and there will be more articles related to the Panama Papers.
“Well, I don’t know if we have stopped yet. That is why we have new partners. We just finished training partners in the U.S. who want to continue doing work. But in our case, it took us a long time to upload all the data. So once we had all the data and we had had several months to do it, we could see that the stories were shaping up to be very good. We had a lot of public figures, that’s what we were looking for. We were looking for the politicians, the heads of state and the big organizations and public institutions, and once we had that, it was a great story. We had more than enough. We had over 200 politicians from around the world that we were writing about. So, at that point we said ‘we are ready to go.’ At least for now, we can have a global story that is going to make a lot of impact. But that doesn’t mean that the research is over or the reporting, and that is why we keep adding partners”
For more about Marina and her fellowship at Alfred Friendly, click here.