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New study maps the ‘Anatomy of a Global Investigation’

ICIJ's work has achieved global impact. But how do you actually pull together a global collaboration? Here are some practical tips from a new report.

Bill Buzenberg watched ICIJ's investigations grow and evolve for more than eight years during his time as executive director of ICIJ's parent organization the Center for Public Integrity. After leaving the Center at the beginning of 2015, he took on a Joan Shorenstein Fellowship that allowed him to step back and dig deeper to discover what really made ICIJ's global collaborations work.

The resulting paper, Anatomy of  Global Investigation, released today by Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center, follows the course plotted by ICIJ's three biggest investigations to date – Offshore Leaks, Luxembourg Leaks and Swiss Leaks – and charts the lessons learned as ICIJ navigated new technologies, new mediascapes, and the challenging world of global investigative collaborations.

Bill BuzenbergAnatomy of a Global Investigation tells the story of the creation of a new form of global journalism. Journalists everywhere should be aware of the world’s largest journalistic collaborations and know what can now be done in global media despite digital disruption and the traditional media meltdown.  

This writing project began when I was planning to leave the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C. at the end of 2014. I had been executive director of the Center for the last eight years. While looking for my next move, I accepted an offer from the Joan Shorenstein Fellowship program at Harvard University. I was pleased because the fellowship would give me a chance to write about something I had been privileged to witness first hand at the Center.

I chose the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) as my research topic and immediately began contacting ICIJ members around the world. What fascinated me was that ICIJ, an 18-year-old venture of the Center for Public Integrity, had been expanding and growing into its full potential. Most importantly, over the last few years, ICIJ had begun pioneering a new type of global reporting by bringing together the largest journalistic collaborations on record—as many as 170 investigative reporters from some 56 countries. 

Each major ICIJ collaboration tackled a single topic, and the results would then be published globally at about the same time. That had never happened before. 

The impact of ICIJ’s latest collaboration, focused on HSBC’s private Swiss bank, had ricocheted around the world, eliciting outrage and prodding governments to act. ICIJ’s previous work on tax havens had already changed laws in 52 countries and counting. What I wanted to write about was how ICIJ was able to conduct such a large and diverse collaboration spanning the globe. 

For the next three months, I interviewed dozens of journalists, including many who are current members of ICIJ. I had the help of ICIJ’s founder, Charles Lewis, along with its first director, Maud Beelman, and one of the nation’s most respected journalists and former CPI Board member, Bill Kovach. I also had the assistance of the ICIJ international staff in Washington, especially Director Gerard Ryle, Deputy Director Marina Walker Guevara and Online Editor Hamish Boland-Rudder. 

I learned about the history of ICIJ. How it moved from an initial idea of taking the Center for Public Integrity’s deep investigative work global, to the early organizing meetings where skeptical journalists from different countries and various traditions of journalism met face-to-face for the first time. I heard how the first ICIJ project on global tobacco smuggling came together. I followed the development of ICIJ as it took on bigger and bigger targets from Offshore Leaks (tax havens) to Luxembourg Leaks (corporate tax avoidance) to Swiss Leaks (HSBC’s private Swiss Bank).

A global vision, using the latest technologies, is needed to make better sense of our globalized society and to report on it for citizens everywhere.

I understood how critical it has been for a team of top-level computer engineers, using powerful new software, to first decipher massive sets of leaked data before investigative journalists can start their normal shoe-leather reporting. Making these computer experts an integral part of the ICIJ process empowered the network of journalists.

I came away from my research believing strongly that ICIJ’s style of global collaboration is critically needed to serve as a new kind of media watchdog in our shrinking world. Goods and services are increasingly spread globally and so are environmental consequences, businesses and financial dealings and the crimes of crooks and hackers. We need to create a scale of journalism to fit global and stateless criminality.

However, today’s news reporting is mostly conducted by nation-state-based journalists. There are also wire services and a few thousand foreign correspondents spread thinly around the planet’s news centers and hot spots. But they cannot provide the necessarily robust investigative clout needed to see today’s borderless world in hundreds of places and thousands of ways simultaneously. A global vision, using the latest technologies, is needed to make better sense of our globalized society and to report on it for citizens everywhere. Otherwise, the press will remain outmatched and outgunned, as well as underinvested. 

I was able to tell ICIJ’s story, and to include a checklist of 12 lessons learned in order to provide a blueprint for future collaborations on a similar gigantic scale. Writing about the success of ICIJ has given me tremendous professional satisfaction. And my appreciation extends to all of ICIJ’s core staff and its members, past and present, who work hard to create something none of them could do in their own. “I’m not a lone wolf,” as one ICIJ member told me, “but part of a kind of journalistic pack.” 

ICIJ demonstrates above all that global watchdog journalism has a bright future and that its work is needed now more than ever before. 

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