The Panama Papers just Saved Journalism — and Could Save Democracy

April 15, 2016

Revelations about the widespread use of shell companies and offshore banking by politicians and business figures has challenged the traditional model of investigative reporting. It could be the new way investigative reporting is done.

The “Panama Papers” — 11.5 million files, 2.6 terabytes of digital information in what one newspaper called “history’s biggest data leak” — came from a Panamanian law firm that specializes in setting up offshore companies. An anonymous source leaked them to a German newspaper, which shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which proceeded to share them with a network of other media outlets.

This is new territory for journalists, who usually pursue exclusives and the vaunted “scoop” independently. Instead, this was a partnership model, coordinated by a nonprofit group that had been launched by another nonprofit called the Center for Public Integrity, which allowed global collaboration. The arrangement is based on trust — rather than competition — among journalists from different countries, with differing objectives.

The project did pose new challenges. Some were technical, such as how to reverse-engineer databases to make the documents useful, and some were more traditionally journalistic, such as how to put the information in context.

But potentially more important than changes in professional reporting methods is the question of the appropriate target for investigative reporters in mainstream news media. Should the focus be on violations of norms and laws within the existing system — the sphere to which conventional reporters have typically limited themselves — or can the focus be the nature of the system itself?

The stories emerging from the Panama Papers identified specific individuals tied to illegal activity, but it also reminded us that these practices of the rich and criminal are routine. Follow-up stories, for example, have pointed out that the laws of some U.S. states, such as Delaware, allow the same shenanigans at home as abroad.

The next step might be to point out that such strategies of maximizing profits without regard to the social costs are, well, kind of the way capitalism works. That could lead to people challenging the assumptions of the economic system, even if the political and business elites try to persuade us that, to quote the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, “there is no alternative.”

But whether mainstream journalism can move into a deeper analysis of the routine working of the economic system depends on the politics outside the newsroom. The freedom journalists have to report critically about an amoral, wealth-concentrating economic system depends not only on freedom from government censorship, but on freedom from corporate constraints.

Media owners rarely have much interest in funding and promoting such reporting, unless there are social movements demanding it. A vibrant public conversation — not just about electoral politics and the platforms of the two major parties, but also about the viability of the system itself — gives journalists more room to deepen their reporting.

With a more robust public sphere, collaborative projects such as the Panama Papers will help individual journalists and small newsrooms push harder and further than we’ve seen in recent decades.

Is this activist journalism? Perhaps. But when journalists ignore basic questions about the viability and fairness of an economic system, no one accuses the news media of being activist in favor of the wealthy. It’s only when journalists challenge power at its core that the activist label is trotted out, to scare off both journalists and the public.

The growing frustration of ordinary people to the everyday business practices of large corporations, combined with new models of journalistic collaboration using sophisticated techniques for analyzing data, could spark a flowering of democracy, around the world and in the United States.

There are signs in newsrooms across the country that such progress is possible, as social movements for racial, gender, and economic justice challenge the status quo. The success of reactionary demagogues, at home and abroad, reminds us such progress is not inevitable.

An invigorated investigative journalism can help, not by yolking itself to any particular politician, party or program but by keeping focused on how the routine cons and crimes of the wealthy and powerful are not only a product of individual corruption but of unjust economic and political systems.

Panama City financial district By Dronepicr – Own work, CC BY 3.0.

Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and collaborates with the New Perennials Project at Middlebury College. He is the author of It’s Debatable: Talking Authentically about Tricky Topics, coming this spring from Olive Branch Press. This essay is adapted from his book An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity, co-authored with Wes Jackson.

Tags: investigative journalism, Panama papers, tax havens