April 3, 2014, Berlin

From Cablegate to Offshore Leaks and more: the internationalisation of research, and how it can be funded

Whilst the worlds of business, trade, work and much more have long operated on a global level, journalism remains confined to national boundaries. Organisations such as the ICIJ want to change that.


Although some publishing houses and individual media with international impact exist (such as The Guardian, The New York Times or Al Jazeera), research and editorial work generally remains limited to the national level.

It is only over recent years that a trend for organising research within international partnerships has emerged. Examples are the Offshore Leaks story, Wikileaks Diplomatic Cables or the current surveillance and espionage scandal. This is also crucial because, whilst the events and their effects are global, this is not yet true of publicity. What is more, there is less and less money available for journalism, and press freedom is also coming under fire, as was recently observed in the UK. Journalists will have little option other than to pool the resources of various editorial teams to get the job done.

ZDF: task forces instead of research teams

This poses a range of challenges for journalists. For an editorial team that has previously only concentrated on its own publication or broadcast, the first issue is to change their point of view. A 50-year-old institution should be particularly careful not to pass this up, says Elmar Theveßen, deputy editor in chief of ZDF and head of the “Aktuelles” editorial team. Organisations such as ZDF, which has 19 international and 16 domestic studios, seem tailor-made for the internationalisation of research.

In order to exploit its amassed expertise, ZDF has to date relied on “task forces”: shifting constellations of editors who spend part of their time on a particular story and research – like bird flu, terrorist networks or the doping scandal – instead of separate research teams many newspapers installed in their newsrooms. And if the story is about bird flu, you should get a physician and freelance journalists involved as experts, says Theveßen.

Competition or collaboration?

But the hunt for the scoop seems to hamper such collaborations: after all, what editorial team wants to share an exclusive exposé with the competition? However, the work of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) shows how collaborations can be established and supported. More than 160 journalists from around the world belong to the ICIJ network. They help the small number of full-time employees to establish contact with editorial teams of larger media and convince them that a story is worth pursuing. This also enables them to produce stories that need reporting on a more international level. In some cases the ICIJ, which is largely funded by foundations, can provide journalists with a scholarship so that they can devote all their time to certain stories, as Ryle explains.

The discussion also shows that trust is essential for investigative work that stretches half-way around the world. Trust needs to exist between whistleblowers and editors: anonymous postboxes are one thing that can facilitate this but they don’t render face to face meetings unnecessary. For many informants this is essential in the surveillance age, but all too frequently such pleas fall on deaf ears, says Gerard Ryle. “Many media outfits have got rid of staff such as receptionists and assistants who are the first port of call for people from outside. But as a journalistic institution you lose a lot of opportunities if 99 percent of calls don’t get through.” Ryle recalls that Chelsea Manning contacted a number of editorial teams to offer them information but was always turned away. It wasn’t until later, when she approached Wikileaks, that she was finally taken seriously.

Where the money comes from

An important issue is the funding of such projects. Should the ICIJ sell stories to media? “The only currency I have for reporters is a good story,” says Ryle; the ICIJ is not a news agency and does not want to be one. Ryle is now considering a fee model for institutional members. However, a big part of his job as the director of the ICIJ is to talk to potential donors. The organisation does not take money from the government; it is currently funded by a range of large foundations such as the Dutch Adessium Foundation, the British Open Society Foundations of George Soros and the Ford Foundation from the USA.

Of course, the issue looks quite different from the perspective of the public broadcasters. “We could also work more with print media, and would also like to do that,” says Elmar Theveßen. For instance, a broadcaster could provide moving images to a story, the print publication would provide the text version. He consciously outlines an alternative to the media policy battles of recent years. However, such endeavours face significant obstacles: competition and state aid laws severely curtail collaborations.

Things are in motion on other fronts, albeit on a small scale: the election campaign fact check, a joint project with Wikipedia authors, shows how research processes can be opened up and hands on experience harvested. “That’s new for us,” says Theveßen. That sentence is repeated a number of times this afternoon in Berlin’s Münzsalon. Not a bad sign.

Report: David Pachali