Data Journalism Should Thrive on Cross-Border Collaborations—Why Doesn’t It?

The potential of multi-country, data-driven journalism is too great to give up on.

Gulf of Mexico, United States. (NASA)

I was sitting in a Yangon tech hub on the first day of a two-week election data war room, with a bunch of Myanmar journalists still riding the high of the recent election. Aung San Suu Kyi was going to lead the country at last. Yangon was crawling with foreign correspondents—and there were more than 300 brand new media outlets in Myanmar, none of which were on very firm financial footing.

The election was not short on coverage, just on complex coverage.

Despite the potential of digital and data tools to enrich reporting on multi-layered issues, in most newsrooms—whether in Myanmar or in Western countries—they simply aren’t there. According to the authors of The Goat Must Be Fed, who analyzed the uptake of data journalism in the US, “Our biggest finding is that data journalism is out of whack with the hype–and we need to acknowledge that we’ve been part of the problem.”

In a previous post, I discussed the shortcomings of both the boot camps and embedded fellowships, a la OpenNews, to transform primarily analog media organizations into data powerhouses. I contrasted embedded fellowships, appropriate for media already engaged in data journalism, with another structure we tried: an incubator fellowship in Kenya. Journalists, graphic designers and developers interested in data journalism spent four months in an intensive training and production program with the Internews in Kenya data journalism team. The focus on skills building and teamwork enabled the journalists to overcome the steep learning curve in a supportive environment and return to their newsroom both with skills and a few major projects under their belts.

The Promise—and Problem—of Cross-Border Partnerships

Now I’d like to look at another trend: cross-border partnerships. In part, this is because a fantastic opportunity to collaborate and publish a major corruption story in Myanmar media just slipped through my fingers here in Yangon. Global Witness published a major investigation into the ex-military Myanmar government’s ownership of the jade industry—which, although perfectly timed just weeks ahead of Myanmar’s elections, in which many ex-military officials were running, was published in English only and we had no idea it was coming. None of the data was open and no local media had access to the original source materials. Two trainees interested in the story worked backwards, scraping PDF tables from the final report to produce a story on Myanmar’s missing jade tax revenue. Global Witness provided access to the company registry, but not the list combined with jade licenses and sanctions lists, which is how they uncovered the corruption.

In an increasingly globalized world where stories jump borders, cross-border collaboration is a natural next step. If we could wind back the clock six months, it would have been a fantastic opportunity for Global Witness and Myanmar journalists to work together to catapult the jade industry corruption investigation to headline news as Myanmar voted on whether these corrupt officials would be their future leaders.

Newspaper in Myanmar

May Oo Kyinnar Naing published “The problem for the new government is how to solve the tax evasion from the jade trading” in the Kumudra Journal after scraping and translating datasets from the Global Witness jade report on December 15, 2015 following the elections.

In donors’ excitement to embrace the open government and open data movement, they have supported data journalism’s most visible and easy-to-understand education tools: boot camps, hackathons, and conferences. At times, there is also support for cross-border projects by organizations like the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and the European Journalism Center. Yet all these approaches assume that the barriers to the global development of data journalism are simple: funding and technology. The grants are designed to provide resources, with the tacit assumption that the data will trickle down to its intended audience, but they have misdiagnosed the essential root problem. As Goats and a vast array of experience in failed data journalism initiatives tell us, it’s not the tools—at least, not primarily.

Global Data Journalism Is Not a Given

The primary challenge lies in the assumption that the media is a public-service watchdog. Unfortunately, this role is not assumed, or understood, in much of the world. Instead, I see apathy and resignation in countries where corruption and scandal are often on the front page, but fleetingly. Neither the journalist writing the story nor the citizen reading the story expects that just because the problem is exposed, it will ever be fixed.

The role of media in many places is not to report the truth, but rather, to quote powerful people espousing their version of the truth. Flipping through newspapers, the number of headlines with direct quotes is overwhelming. Data journalism calls for the quotation marks to be removed and replaced by data, and in doing so the journalist assumes some responsibility for content verification. In places where governments and their data are distrusted, this is not something many journalists want to stake their reputation on.

The High Risk of Specificity

Actually getting to the bottom of things and identifying a chain of responsibility can be much riskier than exposing corruption in general terms in countries where graft, mismanagement, incompetence are all expected. Most media are comfortable publishing a front page story about a massive bribery scandal in a government ministry, but naming the officials involved and the exact amount of the transfers—basically, a road map to accountability—carries an additional level of risk. Therefore, journalists often lack the motivation to do the kind of analytical thinking required for rigorous data journalism—and, as trainees often point out, with high levels of public apathy, it might not be worth the effort. The journalists who are interested in this kind of work are usually far too busy to reach out to international groups.

Low Data Literacy and the Business Case for Inertia

Another critical barrier to data journalism in countries where it has the greatest potential for good—the most corrupt, unequal, and impoverished countries—is a lack of data literacy both in the media and among citizens. Developing data literacy and related technical skills can seem irrelevant, intimidating, and unrewarding for mid-career journalists in developing countries.

Moreover, publishers, editors and journalists often see no need to engage in a difficult, expensive, risky endeavor when their traditional business model is stable (for now). People are still buying newspapers, listening to radio, and tuning into the nightly news. Additionally, nobody has produced a compelling business model based on data that can win over publishers, even when a global consortium foots most of the bill for an investigation and training.

Cross-Border Collaborations Are Even Harder

For those few data journalism pioneers in emerging democracies, cross-border collaborations are a natural fit for growing skills and wider impact. But they are often easier on paper than in practice. A cross-border project I led in Central America a few years ago, The Mafia’s Shadow in the Americas, brought together top investigative journalists from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Colombia in what turned out to be four fantastic, parallel, and utterly within-border investigations of organized crime. There was not enough collaborative infrastructure, data security, or trust for truly cross-border collaboration.

Another collaboration I led a few years later, Land Quest, funded by the European Journalism Centre’s Innovation in Development Reporting fund, brought together European, American, and Kenyan journalists to investigative the vicious cycle of European development funds going to Kenya, and then was promptly undermined by European private-sector interests extracting profits back to Europe.

In this case, while the investigation was cross-border, the real potential for impact was in Kenya, where the investigation revealed the legislative weaknesses, secrecy, and corruption that enables exploitation. But the story proved too hot for Kenyan media to publish. Editors would get close, knowing the story had already been broken in Spanish media, but then back out at the prospect of angering the ministries and companies implicated in the investigation.

The Mixed Success of Data-Based Cross-Border Investigations To Date

The burgeoning field of cross-border reporting has vaulted the media of several countries into the world of data, thanks in part to efforts such as the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Both of these organizations harness national and international databases to uncover financial abuses in a globalized world.

OCCRP provides a unique example of locally driven investigations with a goal of changing regional governance, and its members span Eastern Europe through to Central Asia. Members come from media houses across the region to share data and produce collaborative stories such as The Russian Laundromat, which in 2014 investigated the regional reach of Russian money laundering by organized crime networks from Russia to Europe.

Alexandre Léchenet’s new research into cross-country data journalism collaborations found many success stories come from media that prioritize working together for richer content. According to Léchenet, “an open-source and collaborative culture lends itself well to projects that seek to untangle a story hidden in a large dataset. Finding information as well as writing complete stories afterwards can be complicated for one person alone.”

The underlying logic of cross-border collaborations builds on discrete, non-competing audiences in different media markets, with localized content for each audience. It applies even more to smaller media than to international behemoths competing for the same online audience, which Léchenet cites as a possible future deterrent to collaborative reporting.

Yet cross-border data journalism faces the same capacity issues that many data journalism initiatives do in developing countries. ICIJ, for example, isolated and distributed data relevant to journalists country-by-country for Offshore Leaks, since they did not have the resources to build the necessary data journalism skills for local journalists in each of the over 40 participating countries. OCCRP works primarily with already-trained data journalists who are members of their network to bypass the capacity issue.

According to Léchenet’s research, Offshore Leaks and The Migrants’ Files, a European investigation into migrant deaths, proved that strong project management, by people understanding the data well, is crucial to carrying out a big investigation of this kind. A data journalist can assume this role by being the main contact with other journalists who are not so good with the data, according to Léchenet.

A recent collaboration between ICIJ and African journalists illustrates the limitations of this approach. The African journalists involved in the Fatal Extraction investigation of Australian mining companies in Africa were junior partners, publishing independently in their own outlets and not as authors of any of the principle ICIJ products on the ICIJ website and distributed by the Huffington Post. The Africa Network of Investigative Journalists played a supporting role. According to the ICIJ website, contributions by African members provided local fact-checking and on-the-ground anecdotes to illustrate phenomena uncovered by the data findings, logistical, data, and editorial support but not in-depth data analysis; this is further evidence that data skills do not simply “rub off” on journalists through exposure to other data journalists, but require sustained investment of training resources. The muscle behind the database analysis was ICIJ’s data team.

Arguably, the local governments have the largest role in future regulation of extractive industries and thus exploration of local data had potentially greater policy impact. But, as with other cross-border projects, such as The Migrants’ Files, the production resources went primarily to Western media with a Western audience, for a policy response—not potential migrants who may want to understand the risks of making the journey.

In his criticism of another ICIJ project, Evicted and Abandoned, which examines displacement of populations by World Bank projects, Nicholas Benequista pointed out that to fix an international development issue, the most effective strategy is to go after the people who have a vested interest in their local reputation—and, better yet, go after them through local media. This raises a question about the objective of cross-border data journalism: Is the goal really to expose the wrongdoing in order to give the (local) public the information they need to solve the problem, or is it about scandal and the handwringing of a remote Western audience? As Jonathan Stray suggests “…it is always about scandal—what has been called ‘the journalism of outrage.’” This has sometimes made investigative journalism powerless in the face of huge systemic issues, when reaction to a scandal doesn’t carry through to policy or political changes.

Iterating Our Approach

Given the dearth of quality international news coverage during a persistent media-industry crisis, cross-border reporting could be the future for in-depth global coverage—and journalists in developing countries should be taking a more and more active role. Projects such as Influence Mapping, a new initiative supported by the Open Society Foundation, seeks to document relationships between people, organizations, and political processes. Perhaps even more importantly, it seeks to facilitate a collaborative investigation of these relationships. It will enable databases from different countries to talk to each other, and hopefully spur their journalists to do the same as well. Ideally, this will enable investigations that range from the global to the hyper-local, published through the media most likely to prompt change.

At Internews, I’ll be helping to pilot this technology through a new cross-border collaboration among Central American journalists, which will, we hope, instill the necessary skills for true cross-border reporting, reflecting lessons learned from the initial Mafia’s Shadow experiment.

Western media pundits are wringing their hands about the role of journalism, with terms like “explanatory journalism,” “context journalism,” and “solution journalism” being discussed as potentially both lucrative and competitive in a digital media environment. That the point of journalism is to help fix the problem is a given for donors seeking to fund data journalism in developing countries; it is a means to fostering transparency and accountability. Donors, both in the US and across the globe, are putting increased pressure on grantees to produce impact metrics: to take on the mammoth task of proving that journalism is in some tangible, quantifiable way, making things better.

According to Jonathan Stray, who is also one of the leaders of Influence Mappers, “in a recent study comparing the same story with and without a proposed solution, readers who read the solution reported being more likely to share the article on social media, and read other articles on the same site or on the same issue.” Or, if the aim is to educate citizens to be more informed and active in the democratic and government process, that also requires a more sustained approach. “If we’re serious about the notion of an independent check on government, we need to get systematic about it,” says Stray.

Making the Jump from Tools to Change

In countries desensitized to corruption, efforts to grow data journalism need to get serious, and cross-border projects should empower citizens in developing countries to take greater control over their lives. Transforming the legacy media’s messengers of breaking news into change agents for government accountability requires an array of technical and analytical skills that begin with embracing the role of media as a change agent, a shift in the media industry’s attitude, and the coalescence of a global open data community around this common goal. It also requires overcoming public desensitization to the daily scandal, front-page corruption stories, and permanent dysfunction in countries where the problems are most deeply rooted.

Had Global Witness partnered with journalists, the week before the elections, Myanmar media could have run front-page features on any candidates with ties to the jade industry and how much they were profiting. With enough training, the journalists would have had understood the data and analysis enough to publish such a story with confidence instead of going the safe route and rewording press releases from the report release. Once they had the public’s attention, they could have run a series of stories explaining how the Myanmar government is hemorrhaging money due to lost jade tax revenue, set out proposals reforming an oversight system plagued by tax loopholes and lack of enforcement, and push candidates on their plans to solve the problem.

This would, of course, be a long process, and a long game of whack-a-mole as shell companies emerge, but if all this donor funding is being poured into understanding the complexity of the problem, then the findings should at least reach citizens.

Cross-border reporting must also focus first on the audience most likely to catalyze change, and second on creating content that can be repurposed to fill the dearth of quality international news coverage.

In a revealing moment at the recent Global Investigative Journalism Conference, which was attended by participants from an unprecedented 121 countries, an all-European panel discussed the challenges of covering development issues. A member of the audience raised his hand to suggest perhaps a developing country journalist would be well-suited to address the issue. We have a long way to go before full cross-border, and cross-north/south collaborations can realize their potential.


  • Eva Constantaras

    Eva Constantaras is a freelance data journalist and Internews’ Data Journalism Advisor. In the recently published, DATA JOURNALISM, INSIDE THE GLOBAL FUTURE, edited by John Mair, Damian Radcliffe and Tom Felle, she explores three common models for seeding data journalism in developing countries.


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