"If we did not collaborate, then I would only report a fraction of reality to my readers," said Brigitte Alfter, director, Arena for Journalism in Europe, at CIJ Summer conference (4 July 2019).
Alfter previously worked as a Brussels correspondent for Danish newspaper Dagbladet Information. Here, she learned the importance of co-operating with sources and reporters in different countries to get her hands on data that was being denied at the time by EU commissioners.
"We pieced it together with teams and from there I was hooked. Working within teams made so much more sense for covering Europe — it was need-driven," Alfter explained.
Now, she teaches cross-border journalism and its benefits to broader, international investigations.
"Cross-border journalism is not travelling to a far away country and hiring a fixer, it’s where you work with colleagues on an equal level in a team or network," she said.
"You have a shared topic, story or case. You share your research and publish to your own target group. But there needs to be a shared interest."
The CumEx files investigation is just one of many recent examples that saw 38 reporters from 19 newsrooms in 12 countries working together to trawl through hundreds of thousands of documents.
The investigation exposed how a trade outlawed in Germany more than a decade ago was still alive and kicking in other European countries, costing European taxpayers €55 billion.
Cross-border journalism, for its merits, has its share of challenges. You need to assemble a team of compatible journalists and agree on a workflow that is sustainable for all parties involved. Aftler lends some advice on how to make collaborations work for all parties.
Perfecting the story idea
A cross-border investigation starts with an idea or a story lead which has an international and local impact. There are some useful categories to see where broader investigations can be fleshed out.
The first is 'actuality', which means going beyond the typical story in a local newspaper and digging a little deeper for global consequences.
The Norweigan harbour explosion investigation, for example, saw a global team working on stories in the UK, Ivory Coast and the Netherlands.
'Organisation stories', including story leads generated by large international bodies like EU, UN, WTO, WHO and NATO can be a valuable to find broader issues and legislation.
Sometimes, investigations have knock-on effects in different countries, and these can be followed as 'chain stories' where each publication focuses on a different element of that story. A piece about labour trafficking in Ukraine and Romania, for example, ended up with many different story angles in Germany, Czech Republic and the Netherlands.
"The story that the Germans would tell was: watch out, don't trust this so-called job company. In the Ukraine, the story was: who is behind this job company which is actually labour trafficking?"
"In the Czech Republic, it was: how come the authorities close their eyes to having people there with armed guards, their passports taken away, working in the fields and not being paid?"
Where there are trends happening in multiple countries, it is helpful to use 'comparative stories' to examine the potential impact of new laws, for example. One case being that of laws coming into the Danish school system, weighed against existing, similar laws in the UK.
"The UK had introduced a similar reform about eight years ago, so my journalism students went to the UK Ministry of Education to find a ministerial report on the effect of this reform and they had a story that nobody else had."
Building the right team
Once you have the basis of your story, you need to find the right people to facilitate the investigation. To do this, trust is paramount and it can either be developed through recommendations or networking.
Specific skills, languages and knowledge of stories in a particular area are sought after in teams, but chemistry is also important. The process typically involves constant sharing of interviews and assets, something journalists are not naturally inclined to do. Pressure can also rise when working constantly in a second language.
You need to find a way to work with your colleagues from different cultures. Aflter recalls a time when she convinced a Polish colleague to do an FOI request on a story around EU farm subsidies, which is a difficult and time-consuming process in Poland.
"I did some extra research, and found one of the most outspoken anti-EU politicians at the time was a farmer.
"So I asked him ‘but don’t you want to know whether this politician gets subsidies?’ He filed the request and got the data - all because I tried to understand what would make a good story for him."
Writing the story and journalistic practices
A cross-border project by the ICIJ, that investigated trade of Russian-made cigarettes smuggled to Europe worth at least $1 billion a year, brought together reporters from Russia, Ukraine and Romania. It showed, however, that disputes about journalistic methods can arise, such as the use of a hidden camera.
"A dangerous situation like this can be tricky in a cross-border team - because who is responsible? There is a security aspect, but also an ethical one. In some countries, the hidden camera is the very last resort. In others, it is normal.
"That can potentially lead to very serious conflicts in teams, sometimes you cannot even use material produced this way."
But more than that, often there are significant differences in how journalists write the story. In this example, the Romanian journalist completely rewrote the lede once the piece was cleared for publishing.
"In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, and also Nordic, you would put the conclusion in the headline. Then you would explain from there - this is the news triangle we all know.
"If you do this in Romania, people would look at the kiosk, walk by and not buy the newspaper. What they want is a crime scene, the headline is a teaser - page after page - and only at the end, would they unveil what they have found."
She explains that, in this case, simple translations do not work. English to Romanian would read like an instruction manual, or vice versa would read like a soap opera.
But this also applies to politics and the level of opinion that is acceptable.
"In Germany, they write quite opinionated pieces, while they are not partial. When I translate that into Danish, you could not publish that because you have to be far more withdrawn from the object of your story.
"This can create disputes in your team."
Misunderstanding more intimate cultural and interpersonal contexts, on the other hand, can lead to crucial breakdowns in trust, too.
"A Swedish reporter was joking to break the ice with a new team but a Spanish journalist told him weeks later that, at that moment, he nearly withdrew because he could not trust someone who was that laid-back."
Tailoring the report to each target audience is the final step in the process.
"It’s important we adjust the storytelling and presentation to the audiences we know, otherwise we only reach the ones who are capable of contextualising internationally, we don’t reach a broad readership."
But it is the combined force of publishing which is the entire point of cross-border journalism and can mean important findings are not ignored. Even the big players can get the publishing phase wrong, like in the case of Luxembourg Leaks reports by the BBC and France 2 that failed to register meaningful impact with home audiences.
When the ICIJ published more than 40 stories on the leaks, it resulted in a G20 meeting and an editorial piece from Bloomberg calling for Juncker's resignation.
"When it was published simultaneously in several countries at once, everyone talked about it. It was published widely, newspapers, broadcasters, all over the place," she concluded.
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