'Rebooting' journalism and a free press — 2.6 terabytes at a time

April 7, 2016

By Gene Policinski
inside the First Amendment

The rising global furor over the trove of financial records and other documents contained in the Panama Papers also speaks to any number of Digital Age canards about journalism and a free press.

Granted, none of the following have yet reached the status of "Aesop's Fables" in common knowledge. But they go something like this: "News is dead." Another: "Journalists don't matter." And a third: "Who needs the press — old mainstream or new online — when there's the web and algorithms to edit it for us."

Even as the resignations, recriminations and outcry gather worldwide over the leak of some 11.5 million documents from a Panamanian law firm — first to a German newspaper and then to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and more than 100 news operations — it's news professionals making sense of the massive data dump.

And news it is, the intricate details of how some of the world's most powerful people use tax avoidance loopholes in various nations' laws, coupled with so-called "offshore" shelters, or outright skullduggery, to hide ill-gotten gains or remove legally earned income to low-or-no tax havens.

News with nary a trace of "click bait" fluff here, discounting the vicarious thrill of seeing Iceland's prime minister walk out of a TV interview when asked even the simplest question about his peculiar personal finances.

And journalists do matter when it comes to sorting through — and making sense of — a stupefying assembly of raw information and documents totaling 2.6 terabytes of data.

The total amount of leaked data from an as-yet unidentified source is the biggest in history, say several news operations. WikiLeaks' 2010 release of classified diplomatic cables came to just 1.7 gigabytes. Edward Snowden's leaked data totaled just 60 gigabytes, the online Global Post says. (OK, I had to look it up: A terabyte is 1000 gigabytes).

The leaked material includes 4.8 million email messages, 1 million images, and covers 40 years of the operations of the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, starting in 1977 — with 14,000 clients and 214,000 companies named in the files.

The stories just beginning to emerge from the maze of data already involve nearly 400 journalists in several dozen countries, who thus far have identified "140 heads of state, officials, politicians and associates" in the schemes, which are linked to people and institutions in 200 nations and territories, Global Post reported.

And yes, all of this does matter — even in this new millennium of 140-character self-expression and endless streams of electrons devoted to "news" of celebrity burps and bumps.

In addition to the on-again off-again resignation in Iceland, Chinese government censors moved quickly to remove any mention of the scandal from the nation's already heavily circumscribed online resources. Relatives of top Chinese leaders are linked to hidden financial operations, according to ICIJ.

And what of ICIJ, a 19-year-old nonprofit group of reporters, editors and news outlets? Created as a project of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity, its aim is to counter the increasingly global nature of major stories with — according to its website — "computer-assisted reporting specialists, public records experts, fact-checkers and lawyers."

In sum, just the kind of vigorous and effective watchdog role envisioned by this nation's founders for a robust and free press. From challenging the nature of million-dollar contracts to private companies during U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, to reporting that as long ago as the year 2000, Pentagon leaders recognized the risks of having private contractors like Snowden with access to great amounts of classified materials, the consortium has been a new era global thorn in the side of those who once were considered too big or too distant to be held accountable.

There's no question that the Digital Age has turned upside down the economics of journalism, realigned the audience, and likely changed forever even the manner of how we take in news. But the Panama Papers illustrates that having journalists in place to gather, make sense of and then report what they have found is a required, resilient and valuable asset.

And it's not just this single example that's bringing new faces and new methods to news reporting. Sometimes alone, and sometimes in partnership with venerable news operations like The New York Times, names like ProPublica, Politifact and online powerhouse Bloomberg News now populate the annual lists of Pulitzer Prize winners. On local and regional levels, news partnerships reaching across media and linking one-time competitors are becoming more common.

To be sure, the disclosures contained in the Panama Papers are the news. But the manner in which it is happening also signals what may just be — in today's terms of art — how journalism and a free press "reboot" for the 21st century.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at gpolicinski@newseum.org. Follow him on Twitter: @genefac.

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