Panama Papers Coverage Strengthened by Prioritizing Local Media

Editorial Board

Over 11.5 million documents have been released since April 3 in what has become the largest leak of secret documents in history. Dubbed the “Panama Papers,” this 2.6 terabyte leak surpasses WikiLeaks’ 2010 Cablegate, which consisted of 250,000 cables from the U.S. State Department. The PDF documents, emails and photos in question were leaked by an anonymous source associated with the fourth-largest offshore law firm in the world, Panama-based Mossack Fonseca.

The monumental scale of the project — 11.5 million documents, covered by approximately 400 journalists from 80 countries, speaking 25 languages, all sworn to secrecy for one year — points to a new model of investigative journalism, one that relies on collaboration rather than the traditionally competitive “scoop.” A story this massive and important to international politics and the global market was worth more than any one newspaper claiming the glory for breaking the news.

Despite the explosive nature of the story, American media powerhouses like The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal were excluded from the initial leak. The leak was kept under wraps for more than one year by the original reporter, Bastian Obermayer; his newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung; the non-profit International Consortium of Investigative Journalists; and over 100 international news agencies. Minimal coverage from popular American media outlets is supposedly due to the ICIJ’s organizational model of “radical sharing, [ for which the Times and other news organizations weren’t] always a good fit” (“Panama Papers: Why No Big Splash or Times Participation?”, The New York Times, April 4). With media mainstays lagging in their coverage, a curious public turned to other sources for updates while the Times scrambled to complete its own fact checking, publishing stories at a slower rate than many expected.

In the WikiLeaks scandal, the Times and The Guardian — two of the most prominent newspapers in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, respectively — were among those granted permission to publish initial findings from the State Department leaks. The secrets these cables disclosed dealt primarily with American diplomacy and military action, so it makes sense that news organizations which serve readers in the “hotspot” would be the first to speak — The Guardian also publishes a U.S. edition. Americans have the most at stake when American leadership is exposed. They deserve to hear about it from publications that know the political and cultural landscape better than anyone.

This time around, the guilty parties are, for the most part, situated in Europe and Asia. A handful of prominent American figures feature on the list — among them entertainment magnate David Geffen and New York Global Group president Benjamin Wey — but the most egregious holdings belong to associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as Chinese, Ukrainian and Icelandic officials. Aside from the reasons the ICIJ and its media partners have given, the logic holds that readers in the countries most affected will feel the reverberations of the leak much more strongly than their counterparts across the Atlantic. The leak originated outside the U.S. and has very little to do with American corruption; there’s little reason to let the Times, CNN or others steal the thunder.

Besides, when your prime minister resigns or major governmental wrongdoings are exposed, don’t you want to be able to trust your local and national outlets to deliver the news from an informed perspective? It’s not hard to understand that desire in constituents across Europe and Asia. The ICIJ’s strategy enables national publications to establish or reaffirm that very trust, free from Anglocentric biases, perceived or actual.

The Times will be fine. In somewhat of a rare occurrence, the Panama Papers were not really the American media’s story to tell, and so they have been forced to play catch-up. They’ve still covered the story and have the benefit of a few days’ time to analyze and evaluate the damage. However, breaking this kind of news is better this way. When directly affected populations hear it first from outlets dedicated to serving their interests, everyone — except the offshore account holders — wins.