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’re bringing you a recording of a special live edition of our Meet the Investigators podcast. ICIJ reporter Scilla Alecci interviewed Chilean reporter and journalism innovator Francisca Skoknic in a live, online event open exclusively to ICIJ’s donors (who also had a chance to ask Francisca their own questions). In the interview, Francisca shares stories from early in her career, like digging through documents to uncover the secret offshore account linked to dictator Pinochet, and also takes us through the creation of one of her latest projects, an automated news messenger robot called LaBot that guides users through big news stories.
ICIJ’s award-winning Meet the Investigators series is emailed exclusively to ICIJ’s Insiders each month before being published on ICIJ.org, and is one of a number of ways we like to thank our community of supporters who are so integral to our independent journalism. You can join our Insiders community by making a donation to ICIJ. Thanks to all our ICIJ Members who have shared their stories with us, and to all our supporters for helping ICIJ continue its work.
Sean McGoey: Welcome back to the award-winning Meet the Investigators podcast from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. I’m your host, Sean McGoey, and I’m an editorial fellow here at ICIJ.
This month, we’re bringing you a special audio treat from a recent event for ICIJ Insiders, so I’ll hand things over to your guest host, our very own Scilla Alecci.
Scilla Alecci: Hi everyone, thanks for joining us. My name is Scilla Alecci. I’m a reporter with the ICIJ, [and] I also coordinate our partners in Asia and Western Europe. And today I’m going to talk to one of our dearest members — Francisca Skoknic, from Chile. Francisca is one of the creators and the editor of LaBot, and we are going to talk about that innovative news organization in a minute. And until recently, she was the director of the Diego Portales University’s journalism school.
She was also the deputy director of CIPER, which is Chile’s investigative reporting center. And before joining CIPER, she worked for several publications in Chile covering politics. She won numerous awards for uncovering fraud and other wrongdoing. She is a member [of ICIJ] but she also sits on ICIJ’s committee that selects members. So thanks for joining us, Francisca.
I wanted to know about your beginnings, because I read you grew up under Pinochet’s dictatorship. And I’m interested in knowing whether that contributed to your career choice. So why did you become an investigative reporter?
Francisca Skoknic: Mostly, my mother was a very good reader of newspapers. In my family, current affairs were on the table, including politics, and including all the Pinochet era. And there were some alternative magazines that were covering what happened during the dictatorship. So you were able to see different editorial lines and points of view that were very, very fascinating.
Some of the magazines were censored. Sometimes they couldn’t publish pictures on their cover. Even the radio sometimes was censored. So it was a very crazy time to grow up. But also it woke some kind of interest of “What is with the press?” But I think that mostly I studied journalism because I’m a curious person. And when you’re a journalist, you have the privilege to be discovering things every day for work, and to learn new things every day. So for me, that was the most important thing to decide what to do. But since I was a child, I wanted to be a journalist with my brother. When we were children, we edited our own magazine with a writing machine and drawings. So I always wanted that.
Alecci: Is there a story that you remember from that time? Maybe the first story that you covered as a junior journalist?
Skoknic: The first story I covered? Wow, I don’t know. It was so, so long ago. But I think that the most important to me, maybe — it wasn’t the first, but it was the one that made me a journalist — I don’t know if you remember that, in 2004, a U.S. Senate committee unveiled that Pinochet had hidden bank account under fake names in the U.S., and also he had a small network of offshore companies. So when that was revealed, it was shocking, because we knew he was a murderer. But we didn’t know he also robbed. So the natural thing to do in the media is to think, OK, how do we report this here, because all these things happened in the U.S. And I started to dig on his properties.
I was working in a magazine — I wasn’t used to working with documents, I was doing interviews like traditional journalism. And suddenly, I discovered that I could use documents to dig and discover great things. And that time, I discovered that he had transferred all his properties — that were more than we knew back then — to a company in British Virgin Island. And he had been aided by army officers that were at that moment in very important roles in the army, and prominent lawyers. And also he has an executor, who was an expert to create offshore accounts. So I learned all of that from documents in very small archives, in different parts. And it was mind-blowing to understand that if you really know where to start, you can uncover really important things.
All this information was important for when he was judged, and since then, I started to use all these tools in my day-to-day work, and actually now I teach them. Back then, it was like all archives. Now everything’s digital. You have databases with all these documents. But it’s what I teach right now to students in the journalism school. And actually I created this course that’s called “the journalist’s toolbox,” and it’s just what you need to know to search [for] the right document that might help you to understand, to explain, to reveal something important.
Alecci: So what’s in this tool box?
Skoknic: In this toolbox, we have the property records — how to read it, how to search it, because you probably know that everything is online, but it’s not Googling, you know. It’s a bit hidden, [but] you can search. So you need to know, step by step, how to cross [reference] the information in different websites. So on one website you have, you can find an identification number. With that number, you can go to the tax site so you can [get] the number of the property. And with the number you have, you can go to the property record. So it’s like a whole world where everything is attached. But you know, it’s like a map, I always tell my students that it’s like a road map you need to know — if you have this small [piece of] information, how can it help me to get the big picture?
It was mind-blowing to understand that if you really know where to start, you can uncover really important things … it’s like a road map you need to know — if you have this small [piece of] information, how can it help me to get the big picture?
Alecci: So you mentioned this briefly, but when you covered the Pinochet offshore accounts, that was almost 20 years ago, and over the years, not much has changed in terms of criminals using offshore to hide money. But journalism has changed, and our ability to track that has changed. So can you talk a little bit about this evolution and how you do that today?
Skoknic: Yeah, I think that ICIJ has a lot to do with how that evolved. My first contact with ICIJ was in 2012. I was studying in the US, and US universities have these long holidays. So I contacted ICIJ and [told] them that I had free time and I wanted to work with them. And it was difficult times for ICIJ, economic times. They had only, I think, [about] three reporters: Marina, Gerard and two more people, and that was it.
So I went there in summer. And they had just received secret information about offshore companies. The question back then was, “How do we search all the information?” So I sat there during summer with a computer and a pen drive, and just searching like when you search in a file now in your computer, like by keywords, but it wasn’t structured data. It was just like a hard drive, you know, and I was searching about Latin American companies. So it was crazy difficult because you don’t have really good tools to understand how things were related, and how to read things.
But in the months after that, ICIJ started to develop a platform to search that, and that platform has been improved since then. So now you have a very big database in ICIJ that is searchable, and online for the public. And everyone can search and find what the links are between people with different offshore companies. And if you’re reporting something about someone, you go to the Offshore Leaks website, and you write the name of the person and you say, “Oh, this guy has this company in [the Cayman Islands] and this company in British Virgin Islands that is related too, so ICIJ has made things much easier for journalists by making public all those enormous leaks: Panama Papers, Offshore Leaks, and all of that.
Alecci: And when you were covering the Pinochet accounts, also in the US, you had to do it alone. What about collaboration? Have you been working with colleagues overseas a lot these days?
Skoknic: Now, yes. Back then, no, because it was difficult to communicate but technology makes it much easier. And now, it’s very useful to have colleagues around the world [who] you can call and ask to search information for you and share what they know. It multiplies what you can do. When you work together with people with other knowledge, with access to other information, you can multiply what you can reach. That is something that I learned working with ICIJ, [because] I had never done it before. And at the beginning, it’s not easy, because journalists are used to being very secretive. So this attitude to share everything, and to write down and [post] in a website what you are not really ready to publish — it’s an exercise that you learn to do, but it’s not easy at the beginning.
Alecci: Yeah, it’s not! Let’s talk about your organization, because you recently founded LaBot, which is a very experimental kind of newsroom because it uses a real robot to deliver news. So can you tell us how it works and why you decided to choose this kind of format?
Skoknic: I created this with two colleagues because we were really worried about the news ecosystem in Chile. It was in 2017, and legacy media were very happy with publishing their newspapers. But it was like they didn’t see what was happening abroad, that technology had changed everything. And here, nobody was doing anything to change, to experiment with new technology, to [try] new ways of telling stories.
So we decided, at first, we are going to create a project, and we’re going to make it work. And we are going to show that every journalist can be their own boss and create their own media outlets. So we analyzed many alternatives. But we decided that we were really, really in love with Politibot — that was the Spanish news chatbot about politics. And we contacted their owners and we rented [from] them the platform
Why do we like it? Because it’s a different way to tell stories. You go directly where people are nowadays — basically, their phones — and you communicate with them, like in a messaging app, like when you chat in WhatsApp with your friends. What LaBot does is that it mimics those conversations. So you send short messages. And people can interact with LaBot by pressing buttons, and she uses emojis and GIFs and makes jokes, so she recreates this dialogue with people you trust to tell you important stories step by step.
So that allows us to explain, in a very easy way, how complicated things are happening. It’s like a game, but she talks about important issues. And it’s a really good way to engage with your audience, because they need to be answering. They need to be interacting with with the chatbot.
Alecci: And I think one of the readers asked about the software. I don’t know if you don’t want to go into details, but I’m curious: Do you give LaBot a series of topics that she has to be knowledgeable about? Because the news changes [in] seconds? How does she know everything?
Skoknic: It’s not as modern as it looks. People think that she uses artificial intelligence, and actually it’s not like that. It’s like a decision tree. So you write a story with different alternatives — that is very engaging to people, because they can choose what path to follow. But it’s always one story. You send a story like when you send an email, and that story’s there for a few days, until you find the next one. We also have an archive where you can retrieve all stories, but it’s not like you can search — we decide what to send. And so the users think that they are taking decisions that make her think, but everything is predesigned. So part of the craft of this project is how to design each story, the length of each method, etc.
And at the beginning, we had this platform from Politibot, but it was really difficult [and] hard to use — like us, they were journalists building gadgets. But then we had a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation. And we created our own platform [that’s] much more friendly. And it gives us much more detailed analytics, so it’s really much better.
Alecci: Interesting. And so using LaBot, what story was the most successful that you’ve seen so far, in terms of people’s engagement? How do you think that that was different compared to a regular article?
Skoknic: The last one that was very successful, that was a few months ago. In Chile, there was this guy, a very famous economist, that was telling people that he can make [or] earn a lot of money by changing their pension fund investment every day. So it was a huge problem for the economy, because there was a lot of money changing from different investments, like every week. And he started telling lies about the president.
It’s not like it’s our job to defend the president. But I have done a lot of reporting about his business — the Chilean president is a very, very rich businessman. So I have reported a lot [on] how he invests and where his money is. So this guy started to pick some of his conflicts of interest, and make big lies about it. And everyone was believing it, because actually the precedent has a history [of] conflicts of interest and bad decisions, but not this. This was not true.
And the media was ignoring this guy. He wasn’t YouTube. He wasn’t social media. [But] it was a very growing subject, and the media was ignoring it. And everybody was talking about it, so it was like, “Okay, someone has to explain what’s the reality behind this.” So we wrote a story about something that I knew, but it was hard to explain. “Where is the president’s money? What [do] we know? What [don’t we] know? Why this is not true. Etc.” And it was a big success because [the reaction] was, “Finally, someone is explaining this to us.”
So LaBot’s job, many times. is not about uncovering things, but about explaining. I think that there is a lack of this in Chile. In the US, there is the culture of “explainers.” In Latin America, especially in Chile, journalists always have to focus on breaking news, but people need context. In this case, just explaining and showing people that Okay, our President takes a lot of bad decisions, he has a lot of conflicts of interest — but not this. This is a guy just lying to you.
Alecci: Was it also helpful in the COVID-19 pandemic context where people were overwhelmed with fake news?
Skoknic: Yeah. during the pandemic, we launched a second project, LaBot Chequea. Because our diagnosis was that there were lots of new fact-checking that were very important and very useful. But we already know that misinformation and fake news spread much faster than fact-checking. So we need to teach people how to do their own fact checking, how to have a critical opinion about what they see what they receive in WhatsApp and whatever.
Our idea was, “Okay, LaBot is very good [at] explaining things. Why don’t we explain to people how to fact-check?” We work with a professional fact-checker from an agency, and we put in a in the chatbot all the knowledge that journalists know. How to check if a picture is true, [or] if a video is fake. [If] you receive something in your WhatsApp and you don’t know if it’s true or not, what are the steps you can take to check if this is true or not?
And recently, we added a new path because there are different parts of explanations with scientific information, like how to know if something is serious or not, and what are the sources where I can check information about COVID. And I think that it might be a very, very useful tool for students and kids to educate ourselves on how to deal with this huge amount of information that is outside. And we [do] not always know how to understand what it means.
Alecci: Yeah, I totally agree. And that’s also a problem everywhere in the world — we need a LaBot everywhere in every language, I think!
There is also another project that I thought was very important that you did. It’s called Documenta, which basically documents human rights violations that started in 2019. And I believe it was because of the protests over the government’s decision to increase subway fare. So something that sounds very — I wouldn’t say trivial but surely not so big to cause such a big trouble. Can you tell us about the project and the context around that?
Skoknic: The subway fare was just the trigger that created this really huge social outbreak. People were on the street [for] months, every day. It was really, really surprising, and also violent. The project is about how the government reacted to that. And it reacted with a very, very repressive and violent way of [controlling] the crowd. Many people lost their eyes. Hundreds of people have ocular lesions, and other people were [beaten]. Women were sexually harassed. Underage people received a lot of violent aggressions.
So we built this website to systematize all this information. So it has two parts. One is a database with the judicial cases of those people who were reclaiming [their] human rights. We built this database, and it’s searchable. So you can find what’s happened in your city in your neighborhood. You can filter by, by sex, by age by so and then you can read, like the excerpts of the analysis. And it’s terrible when you read it; it’s like, “I can’t believe this happened.”
The website, it has a selection of the things that the people said that the police said to them when they were detained, and it’s terrible — you want to cry when you read it. We also [did] some investigative reporting, like writing stories about things that are not just cases. And we can look to patterns. So we can see, for example, that one of the targets [was] people with cameras — because you know, with social media, everyone who has the camera is a reporter — and many of them were attacked by the police because they were filming or taking pictures.
We have, I don’t know, 50 cases [to] 90 cases of reporters that were attacked. So we we investigate, and we write a story. And like that, we have stories about pregnant women that were attacked by the police. Kids that were kept for many hours, without calling their parents, that were [beaten] — sometimes they were even undressed. And we discovered that some of those practices, like undressing people in the police station in front of everyone, [these were] the practices that were common during the dictatorship, and it can [still] happen in a democracy.
Documenta is documenting those things and extracting those patterns from the database, and converting them into stories with faces and names — well, sometimes [anonymous] because they are victims, you know, or they are underage, but telling their stories, and leaving [it] there for history, you know. This happened, and it can happen again.
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Alecci: And one thing about this that surprised me is something that I read on your website, so I will read it for everybody — this is the English translation. It says that unlike what happened during Augusto Pinochet dictatorship today, there are no media or journalists in Chile whose main goal is to systematically investigate the human rights violations committed in this case, in 2019. I would think that now there will be more media documenting human rights violations than, you know, two decades ago. How’s the press freedom situation? And what does this statement mean?
Skoknic: During the dictatorship, there was no justice, no judiciary system — it was not working. So journalists, in a way, were doing that job. Sometimes they weren’t able to publish at the moment, but there were alternative magazines that I told you [about]. There were many — I don’t know, four, in a small country like this one. So there were many journalists that were experts in covering [those types of] things.
This time, I think that we were not prepared for this to happen. Nobody was prepared for this to happen. We are a democracy. We have been a democracy for 30 years. So human rights violations seemed like something from the past. So no, there were no experts in human rights violation in the press. The big media were not doing in-depth reporting about this — not much, at least. It was an issue with the protesters, because they felt that the media didn’t want to show what was really happening, that the media showed only the violence from the protesters, but they weren’t showing the repression.
So at that time, a lot of groups of people created their own media, like in Instagram [and] Twitter — they were filming every protest, documenting with pictures, which is okay, and it was useful. Actually, many things that we know now is because of them. But there was no press that made an effort to report human rights violations. You can have looters, but this is the force of the state against its citizens — it’s not the same. So I think we were able to see in that moment [that] one of the problems of our press system is that there are too few media outlets, [they are] very conservative, and we need more diversity in the ecosystem.
Alecci: That’s a problem that we have everywhere in the media. It’s an industry issue. But do you think that things have changed? Do you think that the media has acknowledged the problems that they had? And are they trying to improve?
Skoknic: In some way? Yes. But there was a damage. After this social outbreak, trust in the media decreased dramatically — when you see the trust in different kinds of institutions, the media is in the lowest part. There is this study that the Reuters Institute makes every year. So this year, it was a bit better, but still below the average of the country — people don’t trust the media. So that’s a problem. They felt for the first time, I think — and I’m talking mostly about television — that they are being judged all the time by the people and, and that sometimes social media can be even more powerful than TV. So in one sense, it’s better, but also journalists are being pointed at like you’re a liar and being attacked personally, so the climate is not good.
Alecci: So what would be your solution? Because you’re also a professor. So you talk to younger journalists every day. So how can they improve this industry and also the profession and everything related to that?
Skoknic: Well, I think that young journalists must know that they probably will not make a career in a big media outlet. And probably they should be ready and have the tools to create their own projects. I think that this is the right attitude to have now if you want to be a journalist. And in the long term, it can help to create a new and different media ecosystem.
But what I’m worried about, and I don’t have a solution, I think that the great danger is not [having] a daily press. Here in Chile, there are two newspapers, [and] one stopped printing last year — they only have the weekend edition; during the week, it’s just web. And all the magazines closed.
What we saw in 2017, when we created LaBot, happened — the crisis arrived, and it was terrible. Journalists were fired. That was important also for the social outbreak [in 2019] because the media was [shrunk]. It was much weaker than it used to be. I think we need a robust daily press, with journalists in every important beat. This is something hard to replace if you don’t have big companies, because it’s expensive. [But] I think it’s important for the Society for democracy. And I don’t know how to do it, because at least in Chile, we don’t see [the] economic model to sustain that in the long term.
Alecci: On this note, I think our collaboration will continue with Francisca and I hope you will all keep following her work, because It’s great, and ICIJ’s work. Francisca, do you have a last greeting for us?
Skoknic: No, thank you. It was great to talk with you, and it’s always great to work with ICIJ. So thank you.
Alecci: Thanks, everyone.
Sean McGoey: That was our conversation with Francisca Skoknic from the LaBot team in Chile. Thanks again to Francisca, and to all the journalists who share their stories here on the Meet the Investigators podcast.
This episode was produced and edited by me, Sean McGoey. Thanks also to Scilla Alecci for hosting that chat during the most recent ICIJ Insiders event — if you want to get in on the action and become an Insider, head to icij.org/donate.
If you’re sharing this episode on social media, don’t forget the hashtag #MeetTheInvestigators, and if you have any feedback, please send it our way at email@example.com.
Thanks for listening, and we’ll talk to you again next month!
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