The Panama Papers & trickle down journalism

The Panama Papers & trickle down journalism

I’ve been reading a lot about the Panama Papers.

As a ‘thing’, the Panama Paper’s is an amazing project. It’s pretty much written the textbook on how to run a 21st Century journalism investigation overnight. The networked nature, the secrecy all of those elements, the recognition of a global perspective, have been robustly tested over nearly two years of investigation. It’s massively valuable.

The involvement of the ICIJ has been a really interesting part for me. I’ve been watching the emergence of organisations like ProPublica (and, in some respects Wikileaks) for a while and the role of allied journalistic organisations has been fascinating to see. It goes beyond philanthropy and, to some extent, advocacy. The intermediary role of these organisations is a vital pivot point for pulling together investigations like this.

I’ve also been reading that this is the breakthrough for for data journalism.

If we see data journalism as a process — the mechanics of using data — then the Panama Papers is inarguably proof that modern investigative journalism needs data journalism skills.

But if you believe that data journalism reflects something more — a broad approach to journalism that is ‘new’ or different than the old then its a powerful hook on which to hang the view. I’ve certainly seen enough conversation to suggest that the Panama Papers represent a vindication of data journalism — the resignation of Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson has been used to invoke Watergate — the head on a spike that data journalism can do what ‘traditional journalism’ can do and bring down presidents.

The impact, especially for what it means for data journalism, has been measured and discussed in a quite rarefied way. It’s exciting for journalism insiders and the sheer scope of the story makes it ‘feel’ important — and yes. It is important.

But as the ‘story’ percolates into the national context it moves beyond the broad shock(or lack of it) the extent to which dictators, war criminals and others break the law to hide their ill gotten gains. In the UK a least, it’s fast become an ideological issue —* people aren’t breaking the law but it is it right? — *it has becomes political. In the academic sense it remains elite.

What impact it might have or the extent to which it will move further down the ‘accountability’ chain to a regional or local level is yet to be seen. Will we be seeing the impact of the Panama Papers at local council level? Maybe. But I do think there is a risk that the Panama Papers could end up a whole new form of **trickle down journalism; *the impact and benefits remain in the elite journalism sphere and don’t find their way down the chain. Perhaps that’s more about the state of the channels for accountability further down the chain — there are less places for this stuff to trickle.

I’d hope the sheer weight and scale of the story would apply enough pressure to shift some of the blockages. Once the raw information starts to flow ( and I hope it will) and we can begin to look for more ‘local’ angles, then we will really see if the lessons learned as well as the story really will have the impact it deserves.

That’s where I also think data journalism as a broad concept rather than just a description of a mechanical process has the best opportunity to show its value. As much as the Panama Papers add to an enviable cannon of big wins for data journalism, there is a chance here to show the lessons can scale down as well as up.

*Just to be clear. I know there has been some criticism of the lack of transparency from organizations like Wikileaks that have been couched in these terms. I think the approach so far to not opening up all the ‘data’ has been sensible and appropriate. That said, I do think it is a bullet they are going to have to bite sooner rather than later.

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