Knight-Wallace fellows talk big data and investigative journalism at panel discussion
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Among the panelists of the University of Michigan Knight-Wallace Fellowship panel held Monday at Rackham Amphitheatre were Bastian Obermayer and Marina Walker Guevara, two journalists who helped break the Panama Papers — a prominent story implicating high-ranking government officials from dozens of countries for tax crimes.
Also included in the panel discussion were French journalists Edouard Perrin, a former Knight-Wallace Fellow, and Laurent Richard, a current Knight-Wallace fellow, who helped reveal the Luxembourg Leaks, which involved the secret tax deals between the government of Luxembourg and major international corporations.
The event, which was attended by over 150 students, professors and journalists, began with remarks about the evolving challenges facing journalists in the United States today from Will Potter, a former Knight-Wallace Fellow and visiting professor of journalism at the University.
“We have a president that calls CNN and The New York Times fake news, and as Charles (Eisendrath) noted earlier, regards the free press as an enemy of the people,” Potter said. “I think it bears a reminder of the importance that it plays in the history of the United States; it’s not one that is new or unique in world affairs but it is something that is taken for granted — it’s regarded as something that’s always there.”
Potter emphasized to the audience President Donald Trump’s treatment of the media represented the biggest threat to the profession of journalism in modern American history, but unlike journalism in other countries, investigative journalism rarely poses a threat to physical well-being.
“Obviously the risks are high in the United States, but in other countries, we can be talking about their lives that are on the line,” Potter said.
Obermayer, who writes for the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, highlighted the importance of being methodical when investigating complex data leaks. He noted the scope of an investigation like the Panama Papers, which encompassed over 11 million pages of leaked documents, makes the process of review even more important.
He also noted the challenges of language barriers, political knowledge and sourcing that journalists face when investigating international scandals.
“You need people on the ground who know the language,” Obermayer said. “When I was investigating the Panama Papers, a part of our research involved Icelandic politicians, and ... I personally don’t know a word of their language. You also need to have people who know the country and politicians.”
Much of the panel discussion centered around issues faced by investigative journalists in the information age, such as security issues surrounding encryption and data transfer and coordinating work between large teams of reporters.
One of Obermayer’s colleagues on the Panama Papers investigation, Guevara, from the Washington D.C.-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, spoke about the challenges faced during large collaborative projects like Obermayer’s research into tax evasion in Panama, which involved journalists from over 100 media outlets.
“How do you convince journalists to let go of some of the control over their work?” Guevara asked. “Because when you collaborate, you share a lot of research and resources, but when it comes time to publish, you have to respect each other’s independence.”
Perrin, who helped spearhead the large investigative LuxLeaks project, echoed Guevara’s sentiments.
“You need to be really disciplined and need to respect the plan and date,” Perrin said, emphasizing the necessity to uphold ethical standards of fact verification prior to publication.
This, Guevara added, is particularly important in light of the increasing rate of large-scale scandals. She cited the revelations of corruption in FIFA, the international body governing soccer, and Petrobras, the Brazilian state-run petroleum company.
The panel’s focus then shifted from journalistic methods and ethics to the means of facilitating large transfers of data.
Richard, editor in chief of Premières Lignes Télévision, a French media outlet, spoke about his new project — Freedom Voices — that is being developed alongside University researchers.
Freedom Voices is a service that enables journalists to save information to a secure server if their work or safety is jeopardized. If the journalist using Freedom Voices is imprisoned or killed, their information is then sent to a team of journalists who will finish and publish the uncompleted work.
“SecureDrop makes communication of documents more secure, safer to be a whistleblower or investigative journalist,” Richard said of the open-source whistleblower submission system. “But to send information, whistleblowers also can also opt to use postal mail, which is often very secure.”
Guevara concluded the event by stressing the role of a journalist as a public servant whose job is to share facts that have a public interest.
“I believe there is moral responsibility in journalism to think about what your story will change,” Guevara said.
Following the event, LSA junior Tyler Robinson said he believed it was valuable to him as a communications major who is not pursuing a career in journalism, because it provided him with insight into how news stories are produced.
“I thought the event was great; everyone was very knowledgeable and experienced in their field,” Robinson said. “I think that whistleblowing is extremely valuable and at times necessary if there is severe wrongdoing occurring within the government or corporations.”