Argument

Want More ‘Panama Papers’? Here’s How.

The world needs investigative journalism more than ever — but it doesn’t come for free.

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Investigative reporting is on a roll. First there was the inspirational film, Spotlight, about the Boston Globe’s courageous work uncovering the Catholic Church’s cover-up of priests who molest children. Then we were blindsided by the “Panama Papers,” the shocking exposé of offshore wealth that was — and continues to be — reported by over 400 journalists and more than 100 publications, led by the International Consortium of Investigative Reporters. The leak that made this possible affected a dozen world leaders and countries on every continent and time zone. It is already changing people’s attitudes about offshores, has led to a half dozen investigations and the downfall of Iceland’s prime minister, and will likely have far-reaching effects for years to come.

The “Panama Papers” leak would not have been possible without the participation of small and non-profit media outlets working in developing countries. Such groups helped expose offshore wealth belonging to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cronies and the offshore shenanigans of Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko.

Many of these media organizations have been successful in countries where journalism can have more of an impact than we in the West are used to. Esteemed though it may be, the New York Times seldom leads to big changes in society — whereas in the developing world, one story can change things, and often does. Stories reported since 2009 by my Sarajevo-based organization, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), have led to more than a dozen ministers and politicians (including one prime minister) losing their jobs, more than $2.8 billion being collected in fines, seizures or asset freezes, more than 80 investigations or criminal charges being filed, more than 1,300 companies closed, and many other significant changes.

But many organizations like ours face an existential threat — a toxic brew of stagnant economies, politically oriented advertising dollars, hostile governments and laws, and other problems. And that’s before getting to the fundamental problem: investigative reporting has never been a profitable business and has always relied on some big brother media to support it.

In many developing countries, media outlets that do investigative journalism survive only with the help of Western governments, the Open Society Foundations, a few other non-profit foundations, and little else. Even then, of all the development money spent abroad, journalism accounts for just 1 percent. And of that, investigative reporting receives only 2 to 3 percent, according to numbers from the Center for International Media Assistance.

Funds governments have collected thanks to OCCRP investigations alone could pay for all government and private investigative reporting assistance in the world for decades. If investigative journalism is so effective — and so profitable for governments — why aren’t they supporting more of it? That may be because media assistance is often designed and implemented by donors and implementing organizations who don’t understand what investigative journalism is or how to improve it. So instead of promoting complex but high-impact investigative reporting, most development money is spent on much more mundane projects.

One reason for this is that investigative reporting doesn’t lend itself easily to the kind of training currently done in the media development field.

Investigative reporting is hard, and like all difficult skills, it takes the proverbial 10,000 hours to master it. It takes a trainer to turn a man who likes to fight into a boxer. And in the case of journalism, it takes an investigative editor to turn a journalist into an investigative reporter. With no tradition of investigative reporting in most parts of the world, investigative editors are in short supply. In many countries there are literally none.

An investigative editor not only trains a reporter with exercises and repetitive tasks, he also works with the reporter on a story like a trainer would work with a fighter in a boxing match, helping them figure out a strategy, pointing out weaknesses of the opponent, focusing the boxer on their technique, fixing them when they are bleeding, and motivating them to get up and go another round. In journalism, this means developing skills such as conflict interviewing, finding and understanding public records, data analysis, interviewing techniques, source development and many other specialty skills, some of which are seldom used in daily journalism. Understanding this relationship is critical to developing good investigative reporting.

The problem is that not all donors and not all organizations that provide media assistance understand this process, and many do not have investigative reporters on staff. Some do not make a distinction between daily journalism, feature reporting, political reporting or investigative reporting. And this is where the mismatch comes from.

The result is that training programs are not well designed, trainers do not have proper skills or experience, reporters are poorly selected, and there is not enough follow up. Though many such trainings have no discernable impact, their organizers are only too happy to file breathless reports claiming that they have turned 25 reporters into investigative reporters, allowing their donors check off the right boxes. Then the same process is repeated the next year. It’s the equivalent of having a house painter teach kids how to do portrait painting in an hour.

These kinds of training occur almost every week somewhere around the world. Why doesn’t it change?

To begin with, it’s cheap. 25 people can be trained for mere tens of thousands of dollars. On the other hand, training a real investigate reporter can cost two to three hundred thousand dollars and years of work under a veteran editor.

Investigative reporting is a messy business. It’s dangerous and litigious and often angers host governments, leading to complaints. In the hands of poor managers, it can backfire, leading to bad stories that get people hurt or cause more harm than good. It’s a little scary.

It’s also difficult to assess and evaluate. A training is simple: you count the 25 people trained. But how do you assess the impact of an investigative story or the creation of an editor?

It’s also hard to find investigative editors to do the work of training new reporters. They tend to shy away from foreign government money and often don’t understand the limits and priorities of organizations that provide media assistance. There aren’t even that many of them in the first place — maybe 10,000 investigative reporters worldwide at most, and only hundreds of experienced editors. Good ones are expensive, curmudgeonly and prone to quit.

Fortunately, some donors have learned to support the complex and painstaking work of minting new reporters and editors. USAID and the Open Society Foundations have been supporters of proof-of-concept programs that have yielded good results. For their efforts to scale, however, requires finding a way to bring the journalism industry into the development industry in a way that is acceptable to both.

What could really make a difference is to create a trust or some similar instrument, financed by a mix of government and private money, that would be managed by journalists to support the best investigative reporting around the world. One source of funding might be the billions of seized assets from corrupt dictators, crooked businessmen and organized crime that the work of investigative reporters has helped governments to recover. To do nothing is to invite the end of the work that has succeeded to date.

There needs to be a massive investment in media in the developing world. The alternative is to accept living in a world where millions are propagandized and misled. To expect a barely viable independent commercial media and a not-yet viable non-profit media to compete against government-funded propaganda machines, the vanity press of political parties and oligarchs, or the deep pockets of organized crime is an exercise in futility.

We pay billions to build militaries, roads, and new embassies — but the fight will be worth nothing if millions of people continue to live with no access to high-quality, independent investigative journalism. that can shed light on the world’s darkest corners. We have let it go too long. Let’s hope it’s not too late.

In the photo, protesters gather in front of Iceland’s Parliament building on April 7, 2016.

Photo credit: SPENCER PLATT/Getty Images

Correction, April 12, 2016: The figures cited about how much development assistance goes to journalism come from the Center for International Media Assistance. The original version of this article incorrectly referred to the organization as the Center for Independent Media Assistance.

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