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Le Monde investigative journalist Stéphane Horel addresses the audience at the Dataharvest 2024 panel titled "How I Screwed Up and Then Fixed My Cross-Border Investigation," alongside moderator Jose Miguel Calatayud (left), Sotiris Sideris, (center right), and Jelena Ćosić (right). Image: Marie Bröckling

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Common Mistakes in Cross-Border Investigations — And How to Fix Them

Stories about using the wrong data, pre-publishing sensitive information, or failing to follow the timeline — the 2024 Dataharvest panel “How I Screwed Up and then Fixed my Cross-Border Investigation” was no ordinary session. Instead of sharing investigative skills, open source techniques, or editorial tips, the speakers focused on something much less discussed: mistakes, failures, and other errors that almost cost them a story.

Dataharvest 2024 logo

Image: Screenshot, Dataharvest

A panel of three well-established investigative reporters from different areas spoke about their own mistakes, moderated by freelance journalist Jose Miguel Calatayud, who shared his own experiences, as well as possible solutions.

“We must fact-check everything.” — Sortiris Sideris

“My part should actually be titled ‘How I fucked up. Period.’ — because it happens all the time,” said Sotiris Sideris, a data editor working for Reporters United and the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism (CCIJ) eliciting some audible laughs from the audience. In his opinion, mistakes are a common part of the journalistic process. In his case, he misread a series of tweets published by an automated Twitter account containing information from Marine Traffic, which resulted in him using the wrong data for an investigation. The fix: A colleague noticed irregularities in the data. What Sideris learned:  “Never trust yourself and all the great tools without applying logic to it,” he warned. “We must fact-check everything, including data.”

“Timing is crucial.” — Jelena Ćosić

However, sometimes fact-checking the information can’t prevent mistakes from happening. Jelena Ćosić, training manager and Eastern European partnership coordinator at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) spoke about how important it is to plan ahead for everything — especially when working in international teams. “Timing is crucial,” she said, “You need to establish a common timeline that everyone needs to follow.” Ćosić pointed out that it can even be dangerous if the collaborators don’t stick to the common timing. For example, if media partners don’t follow protocol and share a story earlier than expected in the US about an African country, this could result in security issues for the journalists in the latter.

But she also admitted: “I worked for ICIJ for five years now. There was not a single time where everybody would follow the timeline exactly.” The key to minimizing negative impacts: “diplomacy and communication,” Ćosić concluded. “You have to make sure that everyone knows the processes,” she said thinking about a time where a partner didn’t have the information they needed, resulting in a serious mistake that caused security issues. “I would rather waste somebody’s time once or twice than being in a situation where you have to stop the investigation because you put someone in danger.”

“You cannot vote on every decision.” — Stéphane Horel

Communication is not always the easiest thing to do well, though, especially in a big, diverse team. Stéphane Horel, a journalist from the French newspaper Le Monde, discussed her own difficulties of coordinating such a team, especially when it came to the issue of equality and hierarchies. “I thought that the decision-making process can be democratic so everybody has a say,” she reflected. “But I slowly realized that there are a lot of things that you have to decide for others — you cannot vote on every decision.”

So she uses the idea of “decision by consent,” inspired by communities of friends who share living spaces: propositions are validated if none of the members opposes a reasonable objection.”

Some journalists from the audience shared their experiences, ranging from sharing the wrong data to translation issues. The discussants gave some advice how to avoid such mistakes from happening:

Write Down Collaboration Ground Rules

“It helps to put everything in writing,” explained Jose Miguel Calatayud, summing up the discussion about problems with working in large teams.  He advised cross-border collaborations to draw up a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) or a collaboration agreement that includes the communication processes. Jelena Ćosić mentioned that ICIJ draws up a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that includes the communication processes. This also means setting out the partnerships’s ground rules in the beginning — especially for freelancers that work with media outlets.

Quality Control 

“Before you share anything, run it through a quality control,” cautioned Sotiris Sideridis. This way you can double-check your data following a protocol that you established first.

Don’t Rush — and Do Less

“Many mistakes wouldn’t happen if we were not constantly rushing,” Jelena Ćosić pointed out. And Stéphane Horel added that the workload most journalists take on can result in a huge mental load. But working long hours doesn’t help when it comes to avoiding mistakes. “Don’t do too many projects at the same time,” she advised.

Documentation

“I always ask people I work with for proper documentation of their steps,” Sideris said. If and when a mistake occurs, this paper (or electronic) trail helps to know where it happened and how to fix it.

Plan Ahead

All the panelists agreed that a large cross-border investigation needs good planning. This way, you can not only anticipate mistakes that you might be able to avoid, but also help simplify the decision-making process.

If there was one clear takeaway from the panel, it’s the fact that mistakes happen — everywhere and to everybody. As moderator Calatayud put it: “There are some mistakes where there’s just nothing you can do. In the end, people learn from their mistakes — and if we talk more about it, we can also learn from mistakes others do.”


Sarah Ulrich is GIJN’s German-language editor, overseeing GIJN Deutsch in cooperation with Netzwerk Recherche. She also works as an investigative reporter. Her work focuses on abuses of power, (labor) exploitation, right-wing and gender-based violence.

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