Most journalists are hardworking people who really do want to get the story right. But that doesn’t mean they can’t make mistakes. Unfortunately, the more complicated the situation, the more likely it is that well-meaning reporters will misinterpret the facts, jump to the wrong conclusions, and give the public a misleading impression of what actually occurred.
This appears to be what occurred in the wake of the Pandora Papers release. Dozens of stories about the tranche of some 12 million private corporate records appeared in newspapers, television news, and digital media across Europe, North America, and the Asia-Pacific region. These stories included salacious information about clients of respected financial and legal services firms like Trident Trust Company Limited, Asiaciti Trust, and Fidelity Corporate Services Limited — often without proper context. And due to legal and client confidentiality obligations, the firms and individuals mentioned could respond only in the most general terms, if at all.
Revisiting the Pandora Papers
The truth is that many if not most of the individuals and entities named in the Pandora Papers followed applicable national and international law and had done nothing wrong. Nevertheless, the sensational and sometimes misleading coverage of activities and involvement of high-profile figures — including multiple current and former heads of state — created significant reputational challenges.
We can’t turn back the clock on the Pandora Papers. However, we can learn from media coverage of the incident and others like it, such as the Panama Papers and LuxLeaks.
For a variety of reasons, coverage of complex events like these is often misleading, incomplete, or outright inaccurate. By examining this coverage critically, we can come to understand the root causes of these failures and provide a guide for journalists and media organizations that wish to do better. The broad strokes of that guide are already visible in higher-quality coverage of incidents like these.
The Pandora Papers: How the Coverage Fell Short
Mainstream media coverage of the Pandora Papers tended to be simplistic and sensationalized.
With notable exceptions, it did not discuss the origins of the release or offer actionable solutions for preventing similar events in the future.
Nor did it address the national and international legal frameworks that enable and encourage the financial strategies outlined in the release. Where noted at all, these frameworks were uncritically portrayed as bad. Most media covering this event made little effort to explore legitimate proposals to change the international tax system in ways that address the public’s demands.
What did media coverage of the Pandora Papers look like? The stories that got the most exposure tended to have some or all of these characteristics:
- Focus on high-profile individuals. Much of the reporting on this release focused on high-profile individuals that the average reader might be expected to know. This included multiple heads of state, including current or past presidents of Russia and Ecuador.
- Coverage of less known “tax havens.” Some of the most popular stories to come out of this incident focused on so-called tax havens in unexpected places. Those reporting on the release gave a great deal of attention to the favorable confidentiality laws in places like the small U.S. states of Wyoming and South Dakota — isolated, windswept places where most of the people named in the release have probably never set foot.
- Insinuations of wrongdoing by the firms named in the release. The tenor of the coverage was almost uniformly negative toward the firms named in the release, many of which issued detailed responses stressing that they followed all applicable international laws to the best of their abilities. Where coverage distinguished between legal and potentially unlawful behavior, it did not stress this all-important distinction and remained skeptical of lawful activities.
- Skepticism (or worse) of clients’ desire for confidentiality. Those covering the release were equally skeptical of named clients’ desire for confidentiality. This was an ironic position to take given that the ICIJ — understandably, and following journalistic convention — did not report on the origins of the release or reveal its sources. Those named in the papers, many of whom had legitimate and lawful reasons to protect their assets, were not afforded the same courtesy.
It’s not difficult to imagine reputational and financial harm that follows from coverage of such a complex event through a sensational, skeptical lens. To their credit, many of the firms named in the Pandora Papers took the issue head-on and issued responses addressing their perceived roles while noting that legal and client confidentiality considerations precluded more fulsome responses.
For example, Fidelity Corporate Services Limited told The Guardian newspaper that:
“We conduct relevant due diligence in respect to all of our clients at the time of establishment of the relationship and during subsequent compliance updates. All of that information is on file and can be disclosed to a competent authority, for which appropriate legal procedure exists. We are not allowed to disclose any material nonpublic information to the press, even if the disclosure of such information might benefit us.”
Meanwhile, Asiaciti Trust explained:
“We take this opportunity to inform you that your allegations about us are premised on inaccuracies and incomplete information. …We maintain a strong compliance programme and each of our offices have passed third-party audits for anti-money laundering and counter-financing of terrorism practices in recent years, which reflects our intense focus on this area.”
Getting It Right: Balanced Coverage of the Pandora Papers
Media coverage of the Pandora Papers was not uniformly inadequate. Some reports on the release took a more balanced approach by:
- Exploring the release’s origins. Much of the reporting around this release omitted mention of the provenance of the material. Investigations into the incident continue, but it’s clear that it was the work of very sophisticated actors capable of concealing their tracks. The question of how the information was obtained is every bit as interesting as the questions raised by the information itself, and fair treatments of the release attempted to do it justice.
- Putting the financial behaviors revealed by the release in context. Much of the activity described in or insinuated by the release is both lawful and commonplace. Fair-minded reporting about the Pandora Papers — and other large-scale data incidents, as we’ll see — makes this clear. It’s fair to take the position that these behaviors should be curtailed or discouraged, but any reporting that doesn’t describe them accurately — that is, within the bounds of the law — is disingenuous.
- Proposing common-sense solutions to the issues raised by the release. Again, even while acknowledging the legality of the financial activities described in the Pandora Papers, it’s reasonable to take issue with them. Some fair-minded reports of the incident have proposed reasonable international law and tax reforms that could discourage such behaviors in the future, or at least reduce the incentives around them.
It’s not necessary to compromise one’s journalistic ethics or avoid “tough questions” to take a balanced approach to reporting and analyzing complex international events like these. Many respected journalists and publications have managed to thread this needle, and their audiences are better-informed for it.
Media Coverage of Other Large-Scale Data Incidents
The Pandora Papers was only the latest in a long string of large-scale corporate and financial information releases covered widely in international media.
These releases also drew on material that may or may not have been obtained illegally or without the permission of its subjects. Their names may be familiar to those who follow international financial news: Panama Papers, LuxLeaks, Mauritius Leaks, and others.
Coverage of these earlier releases was no better. For the most part, mainstream international media missed the mark. They chose sensational, simplistic stories over nuanced, balanced coverage that told both sides of the story and centered a variety of valid viewpoints. Readers came to associate these incidents not with questions about the origins of the material or concern about the legal frameworks that encourage secrecy but with splashy headlines about Vladimir Putin’s wealth or inaccurate descriptions of legitimate tax-minimization strategies.
To understand why media reporting on complex data incidents so often misses the mark, we must understand the incentives driving this reporting as well as the very real limitations — both in terms of reporting resources and technical expertise — that constrain accuracy and comprehensiveness.
Why Do Media Get Complex Stories Wrong?
We can take an honest, critical look at the failings of complex-story reporting without disparaging hardworking journalists or tarnishing the entire media industry. Media has always been a difficult and competitive business, and the challenges facing it have only grown in recent years.
Those challenges are evident in the problematic reporting of events like the Pandora Papers. They include:
- Short audience attention spans. Audiences are more distracted than ever. For most of us, the evening news is no longer appointment viewing and the idea of spending a leisurely Sunday morning with the newspaper is a fantasy. We consume news and analysis in intervals measured in seconds or at most a few minutes. And we’re more likely to turn to social media or news aggregators than to print, television, or radio.
- Competition for clicks and views. Meanwhile, the barrier to entry is actually lower in media today than it was a generation ago. Media organizations no longer need to own printing presses, television stations, or radio studios to report the news. They simply need a website, a social media account, and a keen sense of their audience. This puts pressure on traditional media organizations to think — and report — more like brash upstarts, many of whom lack the incumbents’ standards and moral scruples.
- Declining advertising revenue. This is all occurring amid fundamental changes in the media business model. In an increasingly fragmented information landscape, advertising revenue alone can’t sustain traditional newsrooms. Accordingly, many news organizations have increased their reliance on subscriptions or adopted a fundraising model that encourages loyal followers to contribute what they can, when they can. Both approaches depend on flashy or outright sensational stories that command audience attention and elevate publishers’ brands.
- Pressure to “go viral.” From Pulitzer-winning newsrooms to itinerant solo reporters working out of a backpack, there’s no greater reward than “going viral.” Unfortunately, this reward is often incompatible with the sober and nuanced reporting that complex stories require.
These conditions took years to develop and can’t be turned back overnight. It’s not clear they can be reversed at all. Social media is here to stay; newspaper classified ads won’t return.
So, should we accept that the mainstream media will continue to misreport complex stories? Or can we hold out hope that it can do better?
A Plan for Better Coverage: How Media Can Improve Coverage of Stories Like the Pandora Papers
There’s ample cause for optimism. We see it already from mostly independent reporters and smaller publications that took the time to get the Pandora Papers story right, or at least to treat it with the balance it deserves.
The rest of the media can learn from these examples, again without compromising their integrity or even altering their editorial perspective. They can simply follow general principles like:
- Vetting all information. This is standard journalistic practice, of course, but it’s not always followed as well as it should be. That’s down to the emerging pressures and incentives described above as well as a general lack of resources. Few major media organizations, and certainly few independent journalists, can afford to confirm every fact. But they should do the best they can.
- Considering the source. No one is truly objective or disinterested. Everyone has an agenda, known or otherwise. And so reporters are obligated to consider a source’s agenda, even if the information they provide checks out — and even or perhaps especially if that information is worth reporting. When shared, this agenda may provide critical context for the audience.
- Getting “behind” the story. Often, the origins of a story are more interesting than the story itself. Where possible, reporters should aim to answer the question: “How did this come together?”
- Asking the next question. Few real-world stories have clear, happy endings. Reporters should acknowledge this by answering another question: “What happens next?” Or, if that’s not clear: “What should happen next?”
Let’s be clear: No one is perfect. The media industry plays an important role in helping the public sort fact from fiction, but individual journalists and editors do get things wrong from time to time. We shouldn’t hold the occasional isolated slip-up against an entire guild.
Yet we can ask the media, as a whole, to do better. We should hold the industry to that — and hold them accountable when it falls short.