A blockbuster investigation, not only in terms of presentation, but in how the story was reported across newsrooms virtually.
On April 3 the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Süddeutsche Zeitung and more than 100 other media outlets began publishing the largest investigation in journalism history: The Panama Papers.
The result: a firestorm of media, political and grassroots reaction around the world. Citizens have taken to the streets in protest. Governments have launched investigations. High profile figures – including Iceland’s prime minister – have been forced to resign. Former South African president Thabo Mbeki called the revelations “a massive blow to financial secrecy.” CNN columnist Frida Ghitis said: “This is an earthquake. The aftershocks will continue for months, even years to come. It could also be the beginning of the end of secrets.”
The Panama Papers is a trove of leaked documents from inside one of the globe’s leading marketers of offshore secrecy. They reveal how the offshore economy works in detail never seen before, and expose the hidden financial dealings of politicians, criminals, and the rich and powerful.
The numbers behind the Panama Papers investigation are massive: 2.6 terabytes of data, 11.5 million files, 214,000 offshore companies, almost 40 years of records, investigated over the course of a year by a team of more than 370 journalists from nearly 80 countries speaking dozens of languages and working across multiple time zones.
The investigation uncovered offshore companies linked to 140 politicians in more than 50 countries – including 12 current or former world leaders. The reporting team also exposed offshore companies tied to the war in Syrian war, the looting of Africa’s resources and a network of people close to Russian President Vladimir Putin that shuffled as $2 billion around the world.
The political reaction came quickly. Iceland’s prime minister stepped down two days after his family’s offshore dealings were revealed, France put Panama back on its tax haven blacklist and U.S. President Barack Obama called for international tax reform. A top FIFA ethics expert resigned after the media partners revealed his business relationships with individuals indicted in the the world soccer body’s corruption scandal. Swiss police raided the headquarters of UEFA, the body that oversees soccer in Europe. Public protests emerged in outside Iceland’s Parliament and outside the home of British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who came under pressure to resign after disclosures that he was linked to the offshore world through his late father.
The challenges of sifting through an enormous leak of data and coordinating a team of hundreds of journalists required a new level of innovation in building digital systems to aid collaboration and reporting. ICIJ adapted and refined open source tools to create a virtual newsroom where reporters could securely communicate and platforms where they could visualize the complex networks of offshore company ownership.
Reporters and researchers filled ICIJ’s secure communications platform, the Global I-Hub, with tens of thousands of messages detailing their findings and advising each other on the most effective research strategies. At the same time, ICIJ’s data and digital teams explored how to present this information in a such way that readers could develop an understanding of the complexity of the offshore world, and engage with the social and political ramifications unearthed by the investigation.
An animated video produced with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting brought to life the victims of financial secrecy, including civilians killed by barrel bombs in Syria and expectant mothers facing mortal danger in crumbling health systems.
The Power Players interactive application featured a wall of more than 70 politicians and their families and associates exposed in the Panama Papers data, allowing users to explore the way influential individuals and families use networks of offshore companies to funnel wealth into secretive jurisdictions.
Stairway to Tax Heaven was a game produced in collaboration with French newspaper Le Monde that helps users discover the ways politicians, celebrities and businesspeople create offshore companies – and find out many of the methods used to evade official scrutiny.
Five weeks after the first stories were published, ICIJ launched a searchable online database that featured shareholder and intermediary information for offshore companies in the Panama Papers data.
These digital products were featured on a dedicated microsite designed by ICIJ as the home of the Panama Papers, where readers could experience the global story, get more context about the investigation, and sign up for a guided email tour that would take them through the Panama Papers’ main features.
The Panama Papers investigation has found an extraordinary global audience. Within two months of publication, ICIJ’s digital products had received more than 70 million page views from countries all around the world, including nearly 25 million page views on the Panama Papers microsite, and more than 38 million page views on the searchable Offshore Leaks database since it launched in May. The network of more than 100 media partners who published stories in collaboration with ICIJ reached an audience that likely numbers in the hundreds of millions across digital, print and broadcast.
A recent 25-country poll by global marketing firm Ipsos found that about four in 10 people surveyed knew of the Panama Papers; 80 percent agreed the Panama Papers showed there are “two sets of rules in the world – one for rich people, and one for everybody else.”
The project has quickly entered the vernacular in dozens of countries, where “the Panama Papers” has become shorthand for the type of questionable activities enabled by offshore havens. In the journalism profession, meanwhile, the Panama Papers have become shorthand for ambition and innovation. Mediashift, a news and technology journal, called the Panama Papers a “shining moment for investigative journalism” that points toward a future “where no one in power is safe, dark money can be exposed, and state secrets can become tomorrow’s headlines.”