‘Follow the money’ is not enough…
How to import the best practices of other professions in the service of investigative journalism
At the end of the 1960s, the journalist Philip Meyer, father of “precision journalism,” imported tools and methodologies from sociology and other social sciences to make journalism more rigorous. Journalism would do well to follow his path: to bring in techniques and tools from other disciplines, and apply them to the field of investigative journalism.
Meyer, a pioneer of his time, changed the way journalists covered complex stories by introducing the systematic use of data. He documented racial discrimination across the city of Detroit, and realized that for journalists to transcend prejudice, they needed to utilize scientific methods.
While reporting for the Detroit Free Press, Meyer used survey research, analyzed on a mainframe computer, to show that people who had attended college were just as likely to have rioted as were high school dropouts. This is often considered one of the earliest examples of computer assisted reporting. The National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR) hosts the annual Philip Meyer Journalism Award, which “recognize excellent journalism done using social science research methods.”
In the same way, I am using these months at Stanford — as a JSK Fellow — to explore techniques used by other professionals, such as prosecutors, auditors, bank compliance officers and even intelligence agents. I aim to enrich my reporting and data processing, and become more effective in investigating corruption in general, and money laundering in particular.
White-collar crime has become sophisticated and transnational, so journalism must follow suit. We need to weave together networks of journalists to address a range of cases. The Panama Papers were one of the best examples. This reporting was a good start, but it’s not enough; money laundering could be better understood and studied using an integrated approach, like a “forensic audit,” a technique that combines criminal, accounting, legal, procedural and financial knowledge, in the fight against fraud.
Many investigative journalists focus on contacting sources or building databases that highlight connections. They concentrate on identifying relationships and/or conflicts of interest among people, companies or power groups. Indeed, a good part of the investigations around the Panama Papers were based on showing illegal relationships. That is definitely important, but journalists could also review in depth the accounting balances or financial operations of the companies involved. Or there may be other strategies we don’t even know about yet.
One of the maxims of investigative journalism is “Follow of money.” But the latest research we did at Armando.info, the media outlet I co-founded, dedicated to investigative journalism in Venezuela, shows unprecedented money laundering mechanisms, such as mining concessions that the Venezuelan government secretly exchanged for imported food from Turkey.
Because of the lack of cash in Venezuela, local authorities are handing out mines to traders who import a good part of the already scarce food in the country. These undercover exchanges, where money laundering is done through barter and other payment mechanisms, are beginning to be detected and penalized by the United States Department of Treasury.
Globalization has also benefited money laundering, in essence, creating transnational mafias. As the drug cartels have sought new ways to operate, such as using narco-submarines in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, journalism must update its tactics. That’s why it’s good to explore what is being used in other disciplines and professions, and also find the best technologies to monitor different types of organized crime. For example, some journalists and technology professionals are developing Geojournalism, the discovery of clandestine mines or illegal air flights through satellites and geo-location applications.
In the same way, there is a good opportunity to explore algorithms and special database models to address money laundering. The latest trends in Artificial Intelligence can help determine strategies that allow the analysis of massive amounts of data, and to glimpse, for example, the capital flow of legal and illegal corruption that journalists usually cover in their countries.
So, the table is set and this journey has just begun. If you want to contribute ideas and approaches, please contact me at email@example.com .