During the 14th Ibero-American Colloquium on Digital Journalism, held on May 1, 2021, Latin American speakers presented transnational investigative projects and gave tips on how to organize, produce and disseminate this kind of reporting.
The table "Stories that cross borders: transnational investigative journalism expands in Latin America" was attended by Lucía Pardo, project manager for la diaria and co-founder of Red Palta, Uruguay; Colombian journalist María Teresa Ronderos, co-founder and director of the Latin American Center for Investive Journalism (CLIP, for its acronym in Spanish); Peruvian journalist Fabiola Torres, director and founder of Salud con Lupa; and Colombian journalist Dora Montero, president of Consejo de Redacción and coordinator of the project Tierra de Resistentes. The conversation was mediated by journalist Ewald Scharfenberg, co-founder and co-editor of Armando.info, of Venezuela.
Ronderos, from CLIP, began her speech by explaining that each collaboration is unique.
“No collaboration is the same as another, each collaboration is different, because each collaboration depends on the story, how it is put together, depends on the partners, on twenty thousand things. It does not have a mold that one can cut cookies and dispense, it is really complex,” she said.
She said that a challenge is to have a journalistic focus, because there is a temptation to come up with an easier solution, to simply do the same topic in several countries. “That's valuable, but it's not as good as finding stories that are really journalistic. And for that, you have to do pre-reporting on the subject,” Ronderos said.
Ronderos explained that it is necessary to know whether what the journalist has in his hands are parallel stories on the same subject or an intertwined story, like “pieces of a puzzle that cannot be solved if one does not put them all together.”
Having an editor and defining how the data is going to be verified is critical, the journalist said.
"The collective verification for me is invaluable. We have discovered that this verification should not be done by one person, but put the stories on the board and everyone reaches out to them and puts their comments. Sure, there is a final editor who cleans everything up, but so many eyes see far better than a few.”
As a starting point, she recommends holding regular meetings and sharing all country data and statistics among journalists, which helps to find common patterns and points. Likewise, in a later stage of disclosure, engagement with the audience also needs to be done collectively.
Finally, Ronderos also argued that a positive posture is very important for working together.
“Good vibes in collaborative journalism I think is fundamental, without good vibes there is no collaborative journalism.”
For her, this often means not being attached to stories that are not good for collaboration, having patience and flexibility, in addition to putting yourself in the shoes of others, that is, understanding that people have very different working conditions and not everyone can dedicate themselves equally or at the same pace.
Torres told about her experience with Salud con Lupa, a digital journalism platform dedicated to public health. The journalist said that the project aimed to look "beyond the disease."
“There was an interest from me and from other colleagues that health journalism be seen beyond what is usually covered, as if it was only important to narrate the disease, when in reality health journalism is more about prevention.”
Since 2019, Salud con Lupa has done a number of transnational investigations, including "amphibious investigations": “which is a term that we take from journalistic experiences to also incorporate people from other disciplines, from computer scientists to social researchers, doctors, who could help us improve that journalistic methodology.”
Torres also spoke about a project that analyzed health agencies in four countries, about how these public employees are hired, as well as another investigation about donations from pharmaceutical companies, which are manufacturers of vaccines, to governments.
The journalist also mentioned a collaboration that was made with the participation of readers and fed with their personal stories. With the pandemic, Torres said, patients with other diseases ended up being forgotten or neglected. For this reason, Salud con Lupa decided to set up a page called "Los Otros Pacientes" (The Other Patients), to monitor the impact that the pandemic had on other areas, such as prenatal examinations and chronic diseases.
Pardo, from la diaria, talked about Red Palta, a network of seven Latin American media that joined to investigate corruption and promote transparency. Pardo said that the network identified that working for greater access to information and transparency, especially regarding public procurement, was fundamental for a more egalitarian society.
She said that there is an initial need, in collaborations, to find patterns in purchases to identify cases of corruption and inefficiencies in these processes. But, then there was a challenge to explain such complex topics and to show how it relates to the population.
“How to tell those stories understanding what the impact is, because often investigative journalism, part of the difficulty is, well, how that translates into very concrete questions, into life stories that happen every day in Latin America and that sometimes it's hard to find that connection,” she said.
Pardo stressed that, in collaborative projects, strategic decision-making and journalistic challenges are made in a very horizontal and flexible way, but that, once certain issues are decided, it is necessary to enter into a more vertical logic.
“Once they are defined, it requires entering into the logic of an operation that is very vertical and that has to commit to times, where there are roles that are super defined, and who will be the editor or publisher, I really think that [person] clearly leads the investigation,” she said.
Montero, from Consejo de Redacción, spoke about Tierra de Resistentes, a collaborative and investigative project on violence against environmental defenders in Latin America. The project started in 2018 with only one investigation planned, but ended up becoming an alliance, which is about to launch its fourth stage of publications. Counting the delivery scheduled for May, about 90 people have already participated in Tierra de Resistentes.
Montero said that, initially, the small group of journalists from different countries met in person in Bogotá, Colombia, and spent three days debating the investigation. According to her, everything was decided collectively, including the name of the project.
She believes that the creation of a WhatsApp group contributed to the continuity of the project. “We worked all the time with drives and emails, we had promised not to do a WhatsApp group, or anything like that, which could be overwhelming.” But, two days before the launch, they had to open the group, due to a series of technical problems with the page.
“And that WhatsApp group is what really managed to keep the project going. Because we did the launch, the page went on the air, great, let's just say the response was huge. [...] But from that day on, we began to talk about specific issues of violence against environmental leaders in that group, to tell how our stories were going, what were the advances, [...] and this became like a little machine, [we said] we do not let this project die, what do we do, and fortunately we have gotten support,” she said.
Finally, Scharfenberg, from Armando.info, from Venezuela, said that collaboration with journalists from other countries was essential to be able to cover Venezuelan corruption.
“Finally, we discovered that even to cover Venezuelan issues we needed this type of work scheme, because Venezuela became completely opaque as a source of information and every time we have to rely more on what is in international databases and registries, etc. in order to cover our Venezuelan topics.”
He also stated that, when he created Armando.info, he was convinced that Chavismo was one of the great stories of Latin America and a "continental project, not just a national one.” And, therefore, it was going to be important to bet on transnational collaborations. “Corrupt people in Latin America do not usually steal money to keep it under the mattress, but what they want is to buy a property in Florida or they want to invest in Luxembourg, etc. and all that always leaves traces.”
Watch the full panel from the 14th Ibero-American Colloquium on Digital Journalism in Spanish and Portuguese. The annual meeting, traditionally held after the close of the International Online Journalism Symposium (ISOJ), is organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, with the support of the Google News Initiative.