Journalistic investigations without borders: Latin American journalists innovate with transnational projects

This story is part of a series on Innovative Journalism in Latin America and the Caribbean.(*)

On Apr. 3, 2016, the world learned about the so-called Panama Papers investigation, a project involving 370 journalists from 76 countries – including 96 journalists from 15 Latin American countries – who revealed a network of evasion and the creation of companies in tax havens by businessmen and leaders from around the globe.

The investigation, led by journalists at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), has provoked political scandals in many countries. But in the journalistic world, there was a markedly positive effect: it showed the impact of a transnational investigation done by journalists in different countries, during the digital age, and within a globalized world, where problems cross borders.

“Before the Panama Papers there were the Luxembourg Leaks and Swiss Leaks [both ICIJ projects], but actually, these projects became visible with the Panama Papers, people saw that they worked, that they brought good results. Seeing the impact and the dimension, it did stimulate collaboration a lot more. You no longer have to convince the journalists, who were accustomed to being lone wolves, to join a collaboration. I do believe there is a before and after Panama Papers,” Emilia Díaz-Struck, leader of transnational investigations at ICIJ and co-founder of the Venezuelan news site Armando.info, told the Knight Center. She was also research editor of the Panama Papers project.

The Knight Center consulted journalists from four media outlets and journalism organizations in Latin America dedicated to collaborative transnational projects. We discussed the conditions in Latin America that favor these types of collaborations, how they work across borders to explain these kinds of issues that don’t adhere to physical barriers, and the promise and threats posed by technology.

Latin America: fertile ground for journalistic transnational projects

Today, technology and the internet greatly facilitate research that in previous years would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to carry out. Journalists can now connect with digital tools, explore huge databases together, develop search engines and generate collective processes for the informational benefit of each other’s societies, without the need to meet physically.

“We used to talk about teams inside the newsroom. Now, journalists from different countries can communicate securely through online platforms and practically have a virtual newsroom in which they share information, findings and stories,” Díaz-Struck said.

Latin American countries share a similar language and cultures, as well as increasing commercial and cultural agreements between governments and companies that bring nations closer to each other. But they also face major problems affecting territories from Patagonia to the Rio Bravo, as well as corruption, organized crime, migration and all the subsequent social consequences. Journalistically, this creates fertile ground for the development of transnational research projects.

“There is an important transnational context, a context of realities that are transforming countries, which are affecting the development of the region and the lives of citizens. And the question there is, how much is journalism doing?” said Colombian Carlos Eduardo Huertas, director of Connectas, a journalistic platform that promotes collaboration on key issues for Latin America.

Among Connectas’ projects is “El Nuevo Éxodo Latino” (The New Latin Exodus), in which journalists from Colombia, Peru and Chile collaborated to illustrate the migration route of Colombians to Chile through the use of data, maps and testimonies. Another collaborative work from the organization is “Las Últimas Prisioneras de los Nazis en América Latina” (The Last Prisoners of the Nazis in Latin America), in which media outlets in Colombia, Chile, Brazil, Venezuela and Mexico addressed the topic of art works stolen by Hitler’s regime that ended up in Latin America.

Growing transnational agreements in the region, both in business and government, generate stories that are connected between countries. For journalists involved in collaborative projects, local views and access to sources in different nations generate a project that’s much more robust and solid.

“I think we will see more and better collaborative journalism in the region,” Emilia Díaz-Struck said. “In Latin America, it is evident there are corruption scandals that cross the continent, such as the Lava Jato case, where a company operating throughout Latin America is involved, and logically it makes sense for journalists to cooperate and collaborate to investigate issues like that.”

Data and Transnational Projects

For projects that address conflicts that touch several countries, data journalism is a great tool for comparing situations and identifying common trends and variables. From there, journalists can add detail to the overall story by supplementing with individual accounts or examples.

“We can humanize the stories from the numbers to make it clear to the public that the context is much larger than what we are showing with a series of cases,” said Ginna Morelo, director of the Data Unit of newspaper El Tiempo and coordinator of Consejo de Redacción (CdR), an organization the promotes investigative journalism in the country.

“Data journalism allows us to further collectivize the search for information by taking up the methodology of the social sciences, all this wealth of the qualitative and quantitative. It is a great opportunity to make visible realities that should not remain within countries, but must go beyond borders,” the journalist said.

Morelo was in charge of the project “Desaparecidos. Duelo Eterno” (The Disappeared. Eternal Grief), carried out by El Tiempo in collaboration with Mexican newspaper El Universal, which addressed the issue of forced disappearances committed by organized crime in both countries. This work received the Ortega y Gasset Journalism Award in 2016 for Best Multimedia Coverage.

Projects like these require the collection, organization and analysis of large amounts of data, which is currently greatly facilitated by digital tools. This ability to manage and store massive amounts of information on the internet or on small devices has fostered innovation in the field of transnational data journalism, which has also contributed to the creation of new ways of presenting the information. One of those ways is through transmedia narrative platforms that use multiple elements like charts, maps, video and text.

“Today, tiny devices can hold all the information that previously occupied large warehouses, and that demands a special knowledge from journalism to be able to do the work in a different way. The journalist must be trained in how to best organize information, how to process it, how to organize it and how to visualize it,” said Huertas, whose organization also participated in the Panama Papers investigation.

“Memoria Robada” (Stolen Memory) is another emblematic project of collaborative transnational journalism based on huge databases which required the use of special tools that facilitated the sharing and visualization of information. This project –which presented a database on the illicit trafficking of cultural pieces in Latin America – is an investigation of Peruvian site Ojo Público in collaboration with La Nación of Costa Rica, Chequeado of Argentina, Plaza Pública of Guatemala, and Animal Político in Mexico.

“The key [to the innovation] of the project was the visualization of data: how we designed an investigation based on massive data, because otherwise it would have been an investigative series about the trafficking of art that contributed information but not in an innovative way. It took a lot of time to think about the best way to organize that information,” said Fabiola Torres, co-founder of Ojo Público and coordinator of “Memoria Robada.”

For optimal presentation of the data, the creators of “Memoria Robada” used free templates from D3.JS, which is a library of templates pre-designed to produce infographics from databases. The media involved also used the Scribd platform to share the documents and photographs collected, so that journalists and the public in other countries could see the information on the original documents.

But getting the information from each country can sometimes be the first hurdle. Even with the access to public information laws that exist in Latin American countries, journalists' requests for information on corruption or crime are frequently rejected or they are given biased information. This complicates the transnational journalistic projects by preventing the homogenous display of the situation in all countries involved.

"When it comes to sensitive information, journalists are faced with opposition from the authorities to deliver the information we are asking for, it depends on whether it is secret or not secret to them. There is information of a public nature that has not been delivered to us with 'business secret' arguments from the Peruvian Ministry of Culture," Fabiola Torres said about the problems they faced in obtaining official documents for “Memoria Robada.”

In this project, journalists had to use access of information requests – which were not always successful– to solicit thousands of memorandums, theft alerts, technical reports and photographs from institutions of the different countries involved. The documents were then analyzed and organized in order to create a complete picture of the situation of art theft in the region.

Nevertheless, the journalists consulted agree that transnational collaboration also contributes to combating censorship and the obstacles faced by reporters in certain places where freedom of the press is violated, thanks to the great reach they achieve with publication in multiple countries.

"When a story comes out in several countries, it gains strength and increases the audience. It reaches different sectors and that strengthens the work in terms of impact. That helps to reduce pressures against journalists because it is a collective that is working on a topic, it is not a lone journalist," Emilia Diaz-Struck explained.

"If a work has many people behind and several media, that helps to have greater strength in terms of coverage and overcoming censorship. If a story does not come out for some reason in a country, it can in others, and the story comes out anyway.”

For journalists of different nationalities to successfully develop a collaborative project on a topic that transcends borders, it is necessary to establish the rules of the game from the beginning. Each media outlet has its own working techniques, policies and editorial lines, but for a project as a whole, the guidelines should be the same for all participants.

Once the project has been started, participants must use digital tools for the entire development of the work, to maintain communication and share information, to organize the data obtained and create visualizations.

Popular tools like Skype, FaceTime and Slack are fundamental to carrying out group coordination, although to share and analyze complex data, more specialized platforms are needed.

"Slack lets you form thematic groups. What we did was create the 'Memoria Robada' channel and we were leaving messages. We also had Skype meetings that facilitated some group and personal coordination to follow the work of the journalists," Torres said.

The ICIJ, for its part, developed a private social network called Global ICIJ, in which member journalists share information and publish the progress of their projects. They also feature the Blacklight "cloud" interface to upload and scan documents together with Linkurious, a data visualization program to analyze connections between different data.

The sensitivity of information in a transnational collaborative project makes it mandatory to use security systems when sharing documents online. That is why the media must be shielded from possible leaks that could compromise their reporters or their sources. This includes dual-authentication systems and encrypted communications, such as Infoencrypt and Hushmail, according to Carlos Eduardo Huertas.

"Collaborative work helps to build networks of trust," Huertas explained. "The whole process occurs in an environment where digital security plays an important role. We use Reportero Seguro, which is the platform of the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), to share documents and information. "

Although the technology and conditions in Latin America favor the development of transnational collaborative projects in the region, there are still aspects that need to be refined in order for the trend to be strengthened and for the projects to reach higher levels, according to journalists specializing in this type of work.

"The raw material, which are the stories, are in abundance. There is also a lot of talent, valuable, brave and dedicated colleagues. But it is necessary to reinforce research techniques. It is necessary to strengthen security mechanisms for communications, protection for journalists and their sources. Also, the sustainability of the proposals in the medium and long term is fundamental to ensure that the stories come to fruition,” Huertas said.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.

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