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Giannina Segnini: “Journalism needs to go global”

Portrait photo of SegniniStories based on the offshore leaks investigations into tax havens have shaken political and financial institutions around the world since they first started appearing in April. Now the leaked data has been released as an online database available to everyone.

Thanks to an interactive web app developed by the investigative unit at the Costa Rican newspaper, La Nacion, users can search and visualize information on more than 100,000 secretive companies, trusts and funds in offshore financial centers.

The database, launched in June 2013 by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) is part of a cache of 2.5 million leaked files. The data has already been analyzed by around 100 journalists working at 58 media organizations in what has been called the largest journalism collaboration in history.

DW Akademie caught up with Giannina Segnini, who heads La Nacion’s investigative unit, on the sidelines of the Global Media Forum where Segnini was taking part in a panel discussion about data-driven journalism.

In her interview with Steffen Leidel, Segnini talks about the Offshore Leaks Database and the increasing need for reporters to collaborate, not just with each other, but also with computer programming experts. (You can read her article about building the database here.)

Giannina, a single publisher or broadcaster would have been completely overwhelmed with the analysis of the offshore data. Does the way in which the ICIJ conducted their investigation prove journalism needs more international collaboration?

Absolutely, cross border reporting is more important than ever before. Trade is global, organized crime is global and as a result, journalism needs to go global as well. Teams from some fifty different countries worked together to analyze the offshore data and dividing up the work and dividing up the data brought very interesting results.

I can imagine it wasn’t easy getting everyone working together.

Sure, it was very difficult to coordinate everything time-wise and different teams used different procedures but it worked well and will continue to work in the future.

What needs to be improved?

We need to have a secure platform where journalists can exchange and compare data sets. That is something that I have already suggested to a number of organizations. It would be great to have something like a social network – like Facebook – so instead of diving down through the data, it would allow us to communicate with one other. So that I get an alert, for example, from a colleague in South Africa if they have a data set that matches one of mine.

What are you hoping to achieve with the Offshore Leaks Database that your team helped develop?

As of now the data belongs to everyone in the whole world instead of being exclusively reserved for journalists. We are saying: “This is what we journalists have already found out. Now everyone around the world can access this information and discover hidden relationships that we journalists might not have uncovered yet.”

Making the information publicly accessible on the Internet hasn’t been without controversy, especially in Germany. Some fear that people or organizations named in the database will be automatically seen as tax evaders even if they haven’t done anything wrong.

Each country’s laws are different when it comes to data. Germany has very restrictive data laws and there is a culture of data protection. The offshore leaks data doesn’t contain any sensitive information: it contains the names and addresses of companies and their representatives. Any sensitive information, such as passport numbers or bank account numbers have been eliminated and we have done this ourselves. What is left is basic information that is publicly available.

The offshore leaks data could only be processed with the help of computer scientists and programmers. Do journalists need to be more open to the world of programming?

You can’t force journalists to be interested. Essentially it’s about their attitudes – journalists who are genuinely interested can gradually develop their own knowledge. What is necessary in today’s world though is that media organizations have at least one developer for every 10 journalists. Organizations which don’t do this won’t be able to keep up with other sites.

There is a very vibrant development community worldwide. Aren’t they a good source for editors?

It is a very good source. We reporters need to have more contact with this other world which is usually very separated from journalism. But the collaboration of journalists and programmers can create incredible things and there are many initiatives that are trying to promote these collaborations. Hacks and Hackers is working extremely well at connecting journalists, designers, and programmers in one spot.

But are enough journalists really prepared to work with developers or programmers?

Not every journalist wants to do this. You have to work with those reporters who really want a collaboration. The first step is to stop being scared of the subject matter. Many journalists are simply intimidated by such things. The developers who work with me often talk about concepts that I don’t understand and then I ask them to explain. That’s part of teamwork. It’s not about getting journalists to become programmers and in my opinion, that’s not the right path either.

Do you think your readers appreciate your paper’s data mining efforts?

The fascination lies in keeping it simple. I don’t believe in creating incredibly complex visualizations – people don’t want them. We always look for the simplest way to show the story we want to tell and we add download options for the few readers who might want to do their own calculations and create their own visualizations. This needs to be optional. But really, people are interested in being told a story. Do people want to navigate their way through a sea of data without any guidance? To be able to guide them, we reporters have to know how to analyze and filter out what is important. This is what journalists have to do in order to give people the information that interests them.

Listen to the complete Global Media Forum panel discussion about data journalism

Back in 2010, La Nacion’s investigative unit consisted of three journalists. Segnini decided to start experimenting with database analysis, scraping websites and collating information from publically available sources. She then brought in two computer developers to work on the investigative team. The unit has since uncovered several corruption scandals including cases leading to the imprisonment of two former Costa Rican presidents. You can follow the work of La Nacion’s investigative unit here (in Spanish).

For more about Segnini, see her profile. You can also follow her on twitter.



Friday 2013-06-28



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