Investigative reporter Harry Karanikas.
Harry Karanikas

MEET THE INVESTIGATORS

Who are we writing for? Investigative storytelling for grannies and lawmakers

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists collaborates with hundreds of members across the world. Each of these journalists is among the best in his or her country and many have won national and global awards. Our monthly series, Meet the Investigators, highlights the work of these tireless journalists.

This month, we speak with Harry Karanikas, an investigative filmmaker for One Channel TV and reporter for the website Protagon and newspaper To Vima. For 20 years, Karanikas has been distilling complex investigations into highly readable magazine and newspaper articles as well as television documentaries. He wants his work to speak both to top corporate executives and to his grandmother. It is often a near-impossible task, but the craft of storytelling is key. Follow him on Twitter here.

Since the start of Greece’s debt crisis in 2009, the country has been locked in severe austerity, lost a quarter of its economic output and one in four people have been left out of work. What has it been like working as an investigative journalist through this period?

I worked for a large circulation, Greek daily newspaper called Ta Nea from 2003 to 2015. By the end, I left because of problems funding my wages and the kind of investigative projects I was working on. Fortunately, I still had a second job, working as an investigative broadcaster for television.

When an economic crisis hits, you quickly feel it in the newsroom. There are real consequences, not just less money to hire reporters, but also in terms of journalistic independence. For example, the banking sector was one of the biggest buyers of newspaper adverts for most of the financial crisis; that meant, if you wanted to do a story about banks, you had a big problem. It was similar for those wanting to report on the shipping sector, too. Four out of five owners of big media were involved in the shipping sector.

Soon after you left Ta Nea, you decided to leave your other job in television, too. Why?

At the time I was working with ICIJ on what became Panama Papers. One of the leads took me close to a friend of the owner of the TV station where I was working. The owner of the station learned about it, and started calling up. Of course, the work was secret, so I couldn’t let him know what it was about. Eventually, I had to resign. He was pressing my boss: ‘Why does Karanikas want to know information about this guy? Why is he interested in him? Who is Karanikas working for?’ I went and joined Protagon, which was more independent.

Panama Papers produced some big stories in Greece, including revelations about leading businessmen as well as important people in politics. Was this a rewarding result for you?

From the start of my career, I always hoped to be part of an effort to expose hidden truths in powerful elites. There was a lot of political turbulence in Greece in the late 1980s, early 90s, following the Koskotas scandal [named after George Koskotas, a banker at the center of a political and financial corruption case].

Unfortunately, the only opportunity I could find to break into journalism was as a technology reporter. It had nothing to do with offshore companies and political leaders. It was quite a while before I was covering the kind of stories that had first motivated me professionally, but I got there in the end.

Pretty early in your career, you started writing long-form investigative articles for magazines. What influence did that have on your journalism?

My first steps in this field were at a men’s magazine called Status. Then, when Esquire magazine launched in Greece they asked me to be a senior editor. The story I remember best from this time was about an American guy, who came from a Greek family. He was convicted of passing U.S. secrets about Turkey over to Greece. I managed to get letters and photos he sent from a high-security prison in the United States, which helped us piece together his life story and explain how he came to make the decisions he did. As soon as he was released, he moved here to Greece and took Greek citizenship.

These kinds of assignments helped me to hone my storytelling skills. My approach is always to try and break the evidence down into very small pieces and then reconstruct them into something that makes sense in a simple way. The process is a bit like script writing: you have to have the characters; you have to have action between the characters; and there must be a starting point, middle point and endpoint.

Is it possible to become too focused on presenting the audience with a gripping tale?

Of course. When you’re trying to simplify a complex situation then you’re increasing your exposure to a potential lawsuit. So, while simplifying complex issues is essential, I think we always need legal checks, too. Unfortunately, in Greece, this only happens in very few cases. I think most reporting doesn’t pass through legal checks, or even fact-checking.

I would like my work to be as relevant to a high ranking executive as it is to my grandmother.

How and why did you choose to expand your output beyond print journalism, making documentaries, too?

Broadcast journalism forces you to think very differently. The units you must think in are no longer the word-count, but time and images. And, more than ever, you need a story to tell. You can’t make a video with just statistics and numbers and documents. You have to have your good guy, your bad guy — and all the people in between them.

Working across two media, it’s hard. You don’t have time for anything else. But it gives satisfaction. I feel more complete this way, rather than just being in the press. Broadcasting is another world that has its own rules and its magic as well.

Who do you imagine watching your films and reading your articles?

All the spectrum. I would like my work to be as relevant to a high ranking executive as it is to my grandmother. It doesn’t always work out that way. In fact, it’s often far from successful, in my opinion. But I try to make it work like this.