As civil society pressures for opening official documents, media get more sources to investigate
By Anna Romandash
Photos by Patricia Senge
Large data leaks enabled some of the world’s biggest investigations; now, it is possible to investigate official data from the governments as more countries open their information.
“Governments give out lots of important documents simply because they do not think anyone will read them,” says Romina Colman, Argentinian journalist, who has investigated governmental corruption using open data from official sources. “Data journalists work with different types of documents, that can inspire stories,” she adds.
For Colman, investigation begins with analyzing the data she receives; it means checking whether its information is authentic and making it relevant for the readers. “When you are working with data, start asking questions,” she says, “Then, it is necessary to build a dataset and normalize the database.” This means structuring the information so it is possible to use it for further investigations.
Some of the most influential investigations took place thanks to combining open data sources and leaked information, as it happened with Panama Papers. Cecile Schilis-Gallego, data journalist at International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, that received the leaks, says that they have never worked with such a large amount of information as it was with Offshore Leaks. To investigate it, the organization collaborated with different journalists, who linked the information with official data and facts from national countries.
Investigating data usually requires more than one journalist, and it strengthens the need to collaborate with other experts. “We always start with journalists, designers, and developers working together,” says Christine Jeavans of BBC, “This way, we know how to present the information for the readers.” Colman agrees. “The most important thing in such investigations is a team,” she states, “Without sharing the information, you are not going to find the things you could find with your colleagues.”
Thanks to opening new data, more journalists can now work on cross-border investigations as well as make their stories more relatable to the readers. “Data journalism creates a new relationship between journalists and readers,” says Colman, “The readers no longer believe the journalists because of who they are, but based on how journalists present information and rely on facts.” Thanks to open data, the readers can do investigations themselves and give tips to media makers.
Among some of the most famous stories done thanks to open data, there are investigations on the first family of Azerbaijan. The journalists were able to prove that President Aliyev’s family owned property in London because the UK had open property registries. Still, the issues of verifying the data and creating better media environments remain open. After all, when media are not free to investigate corruption locally, they cannot make much use of the open data; so it is essential that the governments become more democratic as they move toward more transparency.
The biggest challenge with investigations is the governmental pressure when the journalists fear persecution for reporting officials. Although they can use open data to prove their claims, little can be done when their national authorities imprison media makers.