America’s poverty demands collaborative journalism

America’s poverty demands collaborative journalism

Screenshot showing a portion of the stories the San Francisco Chronicle contributed to their news blitz.

In April of last year, the Panama Papers rocked the world. German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung had obtained a massive amount of data that would later show how 140 corrupt politicians and public officials utilized a global network of offshore tax havens to build wealth and power. The massive data leak from a an anonymous source was the scoop of a lifetime and the impact of the initial stories is still unfolding:

  • At least 150 inquiries, audits or investigations into Panama Papers revelations have been announced in 79 countries around the world

  • An estimated $135 billion was wiped off the value of nearly 400 companies after the Panama Papers

  • Governments are investigating more than 6,500 taxpayers and companies, and have recouped at least $110 million so far in unpaid taxes or asset seizures

  • Nine Mossack Fonseca offices have shuttered around the world, and the law firm has been fined close to half a million dollars

It is not remarkable that wealth and power created space for crimes to perpetuate wealth and power. Yet it was extraordinary that Süddeutsche Zeitung’s decided to share the data.

The story was too big, there were investigative journalists on other continents that would be better-equipped to tackle portions of the dataset. The German paper reached out to the The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which then coordinated the collaboration of more than 100 news outlets around the world. 

"If you wanted to look into the Brazilian documents, you could find a Brazilian reporter. You could see who was awake and working and communicate openly. We encouraged everyone to tell everyone what they were doing," Gerald Ryle, the director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists told Wired.

This year, the Panama Papers collaboration received both the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism and the American Society of News Editors’ award for Impact in Public Service Journalism. Directly under them, the San Francisco Chronicle was an ASNE finalist for its effort uniting 88 outlets in San Francisco to investigate solutions to homelessness.

Editor-in-Chief Audrey Cooper wrote in the Chronicle's letter of intent: “To the city and people of San Francisco: Like you, we are frustrated, confused and dismayed by the seemingly intractable problem of homelessness in our city. Like you, we want answers — and change.”

Most anyone can sympathize. Income inequality and the accompanying housing crisis in our country has grown exponentially since the 80s. Many struggle and we all bear witness to it. Yet homelessness seems too big, perpetual and unsolvable.

In 2014, 46.7 million people lived under the poverty line and one in three families classified as “working poor.” That year, HUD reported to Congress that 578,424 people had been counted as homeless on a single night in January, although the Department of Education recorded 1.3 million homeless children and youths enrolled in public schools in the 2013-14 school year. And sixty-three percent of Americans cannot handle a $500 emergency.

(Research and data by Emmanuel Saez of UC Berkeley. Graph by Jerome Dineen / Street Sense)

Homelessness — a symptom of poverty and inequality — is a national crisis. And several cities and states have responded in-kind. In 2015, eight U.S. cities and Hawaii declared states of emergency to free up more funding and loosen regulations to address affordable housing shortages and provision of shelter.

 It is time for the media to similarly shift how we cover homelessness.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s statement of collaboration continued to say, “We will pool our resources — reporting, data analysis, photojournalism, video, websites. And will publish, broadcast and share a series of stories across all of our outlets. We intend to explore possible solutions, their costs and viability.” 

This focus on solutions journalism is exactly what is needed. The media partners were not advocating for anything, nor were they exploring theories. They identified local problems and then reported on how those problems had been successfully addressed elsewhere. “Solutions journalism is accountability journalism,” said Samantha McCann, Director of Communities at the Solutions Journalism Network, at a recent SJN training I helped organize. “It’s a lot harder for people in power to say, ‘There’s nothing we can do’ in regards to a problem when journalists are able to demonstrate how someone else is effectively responding to it elsewhere. If they can do it better, why can't we?”

The San Francisco outlets did their job: they asked tough questions.

And it inspired others.  

While 88 outlets reported on homelessness in San Francisco, 24 reported on homelessness in Seattle and 3 reported on homelessness in our nation’s capital. This kind of reporting empowers government and service providers to pursue proven approaches and empowers the public to demand them.

Next week, Washington is returning for a second June 29  blitz with twice as many participating newsrooms. I implore all local outlets and D.C.-based national outlets to join the effort — just as I implore all journalists to think collaboratively.

“The next level of solidarity and cooperation is even more challenging. Let us assume a source approaches a reporter of the Washington Post with important information which is hard for them to corroborate. Why not reach out to a colleague who already did work on this topic, even if at a rival publication – the New York Times, CNN, ProPublica, Fox News or wherever – for help? They might have the missing piece of the puzzle, they might have the vital second source and they might have what it takes to publish the story. So why not collaborate?” Frederik Obemaier and Bastian Obemayer of Süddeutsche Zeitung asked in The Guardian.

My newspaper has done this in practice with local alt-weekly Washington City Paper. One of their reporters had been investigating local eviction companies that hire and exploit homeless day laborers. The research was thorough and the interviews many — but they had not been able to corroborate some of the claims. I had similarly been working in my own silo with an anonymous source that had worked on the trucks many times and could also help me ride-along undercover to observe firsthand, but we did not have the time and resources for the rest of the investigation.

Thanks to the leadership of reporter Liz Flock and editor Liz Garrigan in being open to collaboration, City Paper ran the story first, citing interviews with us and Street Sense ran it the following week, crediting them.

Washington City Paper is now one of our partners for the 2017 blitz on solutions to homelessness. Forget being right, first. Just seek the whole truth and report it together.

Journalism is a public service and public service takes collaboration. Together we must continue to investigate solutions until no one is forced to live or die on the street.

In addition to the ICIJ, journalists interested in collaborating may look to Investigative Reporters and Editors or the Center for Cooperative Media.

Eric Falquero edits Street Sense, one of more than 100 street papers sold and partially created by homeless people around the world. You can learn more by following @streetsensedc, find him @EricFalquero and join the #DCHomelessCrisis news blitz at dchomelesscrisis.press

Photo via Eric Falquero 

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