Journalists are getting a bum rap these days. While they have always been suspect in the minds of some people – especially powerful people with something to hide, the introduction of the Internet has seen criticism of the profession at its highest ever. Some of that criticism is deserved; some journalists have overlooked ethics and best journalistic practices in an effort to “get the story first.” But that has always been the exception rather than the rule. Real journalism today does exist.
Let’s look at the case of the Panama Papers. In that instance, and many others, true investigative journalism is at work. Some 400 journalists analyzed 11.5 million leaked documents about offshore bank accounts over the course of a year and then – get this – in a coordinated effort, they shared information, translated for each other and held cross-border meetings. For background purposes, the “Panama Papers,” as the leak is being called, refers to a whistle-blower leaking millions of documents from a law firm in Panama called Mossack Fonseca. The leaked information revealed offshore banking accounts held by prominent individuals in various countries. That is the simple version.
The whistleblower, whose identity we do not and may never know, leaked these documents to a reporter at a German newspaper using encrypted messages and chat. That reporter contacted the Washington, D.C.-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) to help disseminate the information on a global level. Reporters and editors from more than 100 news outlets worked on the project.
Politicians, public figures, entertainers and the like have all been exposed in the news reports that have been published and televised in the past weeks. Some of the leaked information has resulted in resignations and, of course, finger-pointing.
ICIJ Director Gerard Ryle explained to Wired.com earlier this month that the leaked information is being analyzed and exposed in a responsible and professional manner. “We’re not WikiLeaks. We’re trying to show that journalism can be done responsibly,” Ryle said.
According to the ICIJ’s website, the 19- year-old Consortium “is a global network of more than 190 investigative journalists in more than 65 countries who collaborate on in-depth investigative stories.” Even more importantly, ICIJ explains on its website why it exists: “Globalization and development have placed extraordinary pressures on human societies, posing unprecedented threats from polluting industries, transnational crime networks, rogue states, and the actions of powerful figures in business and government. “The news media, hobbled by short attention spans and lack of resources, are even less of a match for those who would harm the public interest. Broadcast networks and major newspapers have closed foreign bureaus, cut travel budgets, and disbanded investigative teams. We are losing our eyes and ears around the world precisely when we need them most. … Our aim is to bring journalists from different countries together in teams – eliminating rivalry and promoting collaboration. Together, we aim to be the world’s best cross-border investigative team.” We are not talking about these so-called “citizen journalists” here. We are talking about real journalists who understand the importance of investigative journalism to democracy and the people's right to know.
Let me clarify that I don’t have a problem with people who happen to be at the scene of something when it happens and who then whip out their camera and document that happening. But, these people are not journalists. Journalists are professionals who work hard to report on issues and who ensure that both sides of that issue are covered completely and in an unbiased manner; professionals who translate complicated issues for the masses.
These are people who understand the journalists’ Code of Ethics, and who subscribe to it religiously. They are people who understand what a “lead” is and what a “nut graph” is. They know the difference between news and opinion.
Some may argue that privacy in some instances trumps the people's right to know. In fact, many may make that argument. Journalists struggle everyday on whether a person’s personal life is newsworthy enough to warrant publishing private information. It is not a decision that is taken lightly and often involves consultation with many people in the newsroom.
Freedom of speech and freedom of the press, which we will celebrate on May 2 – World Press Freedom Day, is the fundamental freedom on which all freedoms are built. It is the reason we should promote and support responsible news reporting, and investigative journalism.
Much more will come from the Panama Papers and many, many more high profile people around the world will be exposed for possibly attempting to hide assets in shell companies around the world, and nations will be called to task for possible acts of corruption.
It should be noted that shell companies in themselves are not illegal, and as ICIJ and others have noted in news reports, there is no real proof as yet that the people named in the Panama Papers have done anything illegal. What the leaks do show is that some offshore banks have not done a good job of following rules that would ensure that people are not evading taxes, are not involved in corruption and that these accounts are not being used for illegal purposes.
In the end, much more information will be released from the leak, which is being described as the biggest in history based on the sheer number of documents. And while I personally espouse the work of good investigative journalists and encourage you to support investigative journalism, it is also healthy to discuss what leaks are relevant to the greater good and what is simply gossip or muckraking.
In the midst of this discussion, we have to remember that journalism counts, and so does good reporting.
This column first appeared in the South Florida Times on April 13, 2016.