Making partnerships work: How a team of 50+ international reporters investigated and exposed the World Bank
Michael Hudson, a senior editor with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, was project editor for ICIJ's World Bank investigation.
At a military camp in a violence-stained region of Central America, a Honduran Army officer informed Sasha Chavkin that he knew the reporter's itinerary – where Chavkin was going and the people he planned to interview. When Chavkin asked how he had acquired this information, the colonel said simply: "Yo soy un militar." ("I am a military man.")
In Kenya's western highlands, rifle-toting officers from the Kenya Forest Service confronted Anthony Langat and Jacob Kushner as the Nairobi-based reporters tried to interview indigenous peoples who claimed forest rangers had burned them out of their homes. The officers questioned the reporters for nearly an hour, refusing to say whether they were under arrest.
Along the Gulf of Kutch, a manager for one of India's largest coal-powered plants, flanked by security guards, confronted Barry Yeoman, a freelance magazine journalist: Who was he and what was he doing at the fishing settlement near the plant? When Yeoman tried to sidestep the questions, one of the guards said they already knew who he was: "Aren't you with ICIJ?"
These kinds of encounters aren't unusual when it comes to boots-in-the-mud foreign reporting. What's different is that all these journalists were working together, on the same story, as a part of a reporting partnership involving more than 50 journalists led by ICIJ, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Their subject: How power plants, dams and other big projects bankrolled by the World Bank Group can harm people and the environment.
Over the course of a decade, projects financed by the World Bank physically or economically displaced an estimated 3.4 million people, the reporting team found. These vulnerable people, often among the poorest in their societies, were forced from their homes, lost land or other assets or saw their livelihoods damaged. During this period, the investigation found, the bank regularly failed to follow its own rules for protecting the people living in the path of development.
To show the human consequences of the bank's investments, reporters from ICIJ, The Huffington Post and more than 20 other ICIJ media partners reported on the ground in 14 countries. They traveled to isolated villages and urban slums in the Balkans, Asia, Africa and Latin America. They entered areas bloodied by civil conflicts. And they asked tough questions in places where journalists are often watched, questioned and, in some instances, targeted for violence or arrest.
"What connects a lot of the work on the investigation is that people were reporting in places where the local authorities are heavily invested in controversial projects," says Ben Hallman, an editor and reporter for HuffPost who traveled to the mountains of Peru as a part of the investigation. "These places tend to have weak rule of law, and essentially the system that exists is opposed to you getting out the story. There's definitely a chilling effect."
ICIJ is a non-profit news organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. We have a full-time staff of 11 in the U.S., Europe and Latin America and 190 member journalists in 65 countries who team with us on cross-border reporting collaborations.
At ICIJ, we operate on the principle that many stories are too big, too complicated and too global for a lone-wolf muckraker — or even a single news organization — to tackle.
To join an ICIJ project, journalists and their news organizations must agree to share information with other media outlets and hold off releasing their stories so that everyone can publish or broadcast together.
It's an arrangement that often goes against journalists' ingrained instincts.
But at a time when many newsrooms have fewer resources to devote to in-depth reporting, more news organizations have begun to see the benefits of pooling reporting resources and creating a higher profile for stories by publishing jointly.
ICIJ's investigations of leaked offshore financial records — including "SwissLeaks," which involved more than 140 journalists from 45 countries — have prompted legislation and official probes around the world. ICIJ's parent organization, the Center for Public Integrity, has worked with journalists in 50 U.S. states to create a State Integrity Index that scores states' performance on a series "corruption risk indicators."
Telemundo, The Weather Channel, and The Investigative Fund won George Polk and Investigative Reporters and Editors awards this year for their joint investigation of the fate of hundreds of migrants who died trying to cross into the U.S. through the desert terrain of Brooks County, Texas.
For all the success they can bring, however, investigative collaborations are never easy. They require planning, communication and an understanding that partners often have different needs, different resources and different ways of doing things.
What can unite disparate news organizations is a willingness to start thinking of each other as allies rather than competitors.
You have to be ready to do research that might never make it into your own story but will help team members from other outlets. If you do this for colleagues, you improve the chances that teammates will reciprocate. The more you give, the more you get back.
Putting together the team
Our World Bank investigation began in the spring of 2014, when Chavkin, an ICIJ staff reporter, began hearing about complaints from communities who said the bank had failed to protect them the destructive impact of projects it backed.
The bank's push to end extreme poverty around the globe is complicated by the reality that dams and other game-changing projects can make things worse rather than better for people nearby. Families forced to resettle because of big projects often end up poorer than before. Some face hunger and disease. Even when people aren't evicted from their homes, projects can destroy or damage their livelihoods. A dam that changes a river flow, for example, can drastically reduce catches for fishing communities.
Chavkin spent a month doing an "investigative sniff" — poring over written complaints and interviewing experts. He found enough promising leads that ICIJ's editors decided to launch a full investigation.
The next step: putting together a team.
One of the keys to pulling off a joint venture by multiple news outlets is picking the right partners — both in terms of news organizations and individual journalists. As Marina Walker Guevara, ICIJ's deputy director, advises: "Avoid massive-ego and high-maintenance types — the work you are doing is already hard enough."
Some media organizations define collaboration narrowly: "Give us your data, we'll do the story and give you some credit. "We're not interested in working with them. We look for partners that will swap information during the reporting process; coordinate crucial interviews and information requests; and share photos, graphics and even bylines.
Even when partners come in with a collaborative mindset, there are still challenges to getting everyone working together. Just as broadcast and print media that work together can struggle to bridge differences in focus and methods, news outlets working together across national borders also have to work hard to bridge the gap between different journalistic traditions and media law systems.
That's why, if you're trying to a manage a cross-media or cross-border collaboration, you have to understand that you can't control everything. You have to respect the independence of your media partners. Each news organization has to choose and write stories that best serve its own audience.
For the World Bank investigation, we first sought teammates among our regular media partners. Among the first to come on board were Swiss newspapers SonntagsZeitung and Le Matin Dimanche, Nigeria's Premium Times and Belgian newsmagazine MO*. We also reached out to HuffPost, which agreed to join the project as an all-in partner, reporting and writing stories hand-in-hand with ICIJ and publishing them on a shared microsite with video, photos and interactive graphics.
Two U.S. journalism nonprofits — The Investigative Fund and The GroundTruth Project — pitched in with funding for stories and travel and provided crucial editing help. Other outlets — including Fusion, Spain's El Pais and Agência Pública, a non-profit investigative reporting center in Brazil — joined as the investigation progressed.
Playing to strengths
To keep everyone informed and talking with each other, we used Oxwall, an open-source social networking software that allows file sharing and threaded conversations on a Facebook-like news feed. We also used Skype to hold conference calls among groups of partners with similar interests, such as the three German news outlets — public broadcasters WDR and NDR and daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung — that were key players in the collaboration.
It's important, early in a reporting alliance, to get a clear sense of where team members' interests and strengths lie.
As Stephen Stock, an investigative reporter at the San Francisco Bay Area's KNTV, has written, successful collaborations play to partners' strengths: "One team might be really good at data collecting and analysis. . . . Another team might be strong at researching thousands or millions of documents and finding the nugget within while another partner might have sources that help tell a narrative that ties all that data together into a compelling story."
Reporters from Brazil's Agência Pública, for example, drew on their news outlet's experience reporting on people swept aside by the massive construction drive that preceded the 2014 World Cup. ICIJ's Chavkin, who speaks Spanish and has experience reporting in hard-to-reach places in Latin America, went to Honduras to report on a bloody land conflict involving a palm-oil producer financed by the World Bank Group's business-lending unit.
Data journalists from ICIJ and HuffPost focused on digging into World Bank documents to come up with an estimate of the number of people who've been impacted by projects sponsored by the bank. Reporters at ICIJ and HuffPost invested time in tracking down current and former World Bank employees willing to offer insights into how the pressure to push through big projects had led the bank to soft-peddle enforcement of its "social and environmental safeguards."
On the ground
Even as we were crunching data and interviewing bank insiders, we knew we couldn't pull off the investigation unless we could get investigators into the field and reporting from places that had been affected by the World Bank Group's investments.
It wasn't easy. Travel was expensive, and the reporters who were doing the traveling had to negotiate barriers of language and geography.
In Uganda, radio reporter Jeanne Baron needed a translator who could speak four distinct local dialects and a driver who could navigate rutted roads to reach families who claim a corporate agriculture project funded by the bank's private-sector arm kicked them off their farms. Agência Pública's Ciro Barrostraveled 3,000 kilometers to interview people displaced by World Bank-financed dams in Brazil's arid northeast, making the last legs of their trips perched atop "pau-de-araras," crowded and rickety flatbed trucks that locals use to get from place to place.
We also strove to make sure that reporters heading into the field put together plans for protecting themselves and their subjects from the hazards of government and corporate intervention. We got phone numbers and emails for contacts on the ground we could reach out to if something went wrong and, in some cases, asked reporters to check in daily to make sure they hadn't been hassled or detained by police.
HuffPost's Hallman, who reported on a gold mine in Peru backed by the World Bank's private-sector arm, used his iPhone to photograph the pages of his reporting notebook and emailed them to himself at every available opportunity, for fear it would be confiscated by local authorities. A few weeks before his visit, Peruvian police had detained a foreign journalist for 14 hours after the reporter tried to interview a peasant leader who's battling the mine over ownership of the land where her family lives.
After Barry Yeoman was questioned by a manager for a World Bank Group-financed coal-fired power plant in India, his contacts told him that local police were asking about him and that he might get a visit from them at his hotel room. Yeoman took a two-day break from reporting, avoiding the fishing settlements where residents say they've been hurt by the power plant. Then he returned and finished his reporting without intervention from police.
For months, the reporting team sought to interview senior World Bank officials to discuss the findings of the emerging investigation. In late February, ICIJ and HuffPost emailed bank officials a detailed list of questions, with the hope of finally getting a response for the joint ICIJ-HuffPost stories and for other media partners.
Our questions informed the officials that the reporting team had found "systemic gaps" in the bank's compliance with its own rules for protecting people. We also indicated we had obtained a copy of a secret 2014 audit that raised questions about the bank's commitment to enforcing those rules.
Five days later, the World Bank provided answers in an unexpectedly public way.
On March 4, World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim held a press conference in which he admitted "major problems" with the bank's safeguards practices. "We took a hard look at ourselves on resettlement and what we found caused me deep concern," he said.
The bank released an "action plan" that it said would address the failings.
The World Bank denies that the team's reporting provided the impetus for the bank's admission and reform plan. But the timeline speaks for itself — and NGOs that track the World Bank say they believe our investigation forced the bank's hand.
ICIJ, HuffPost and other media partners released the first stories in the series April 16, and have continued to publish and broadcast stories since then. The most recent article — a look at the World Bank's role in the relocation of a village in Kosovo's coalfields — published June 19.
More than 100 media outlets have run the team's World Bank stories or written or broadcast about them, including NPR, the BBC and publications in Turkey, the UAE, Morocco, the Philippines, Chile and the Netherlands.
News managers who hesitate to collaborate with other media organizations sometimes worry that their partners will siphon away some of their audience. ICIJ's experience — in the World Bank investigation and other collaborations — shows the opposite is true.
It's not a zero-sum equation. Publishing simultaneously with other media outlets can grow everyone's audiences by creating a sense that the release is a major event worth paying attention to.
That's a powerful draw, HuffPost's Hallman says, at a time when there's so much other content available for readers and viewers — and in-depth stories about foreign affairs struggle to find an audience.
"International news doesn't get much attention unless it involves ISIS or some other immediate crisis," he says. "We're trying to draw readers to an investigation about the plight of poor people in distant corners of the globe. You can do that with compelling storytelling, but it also helps a lot to have stories run in as many places as possible."
ICIJ, HuffPost and other partners will continue publishing stories about the World Bank throughout 2015.