European Union journalists cross borders for story collaboration

Reporters are taking continent-wide investigations one step further

When Brigitte Alfter was the European Union correspondent in Brussels for a Danish newspaper a decade ago, the stories she covered were only relevant to her Danish audience. Her sources came primarily from Nordic countries. But to cover the EU from the viewpoint of one country or region often misses crucial context.

“If you want to hold power accountable or to give the entire picture, then we have to go cross-border,” says Alfter, a German-Danish investigative journalist who is writing a book on the topic.

She came to this realization in 2005, after a British reporter wanted to know how agricultural subsidies were spent across the EU and the information wasn’t available centrally. He asked other journalists to gather data from their countries and pool resources. Thus was born the first big European cross-border journalism collaboration.

In the meantime, the EU makes its data more transparent, so now a fluid group of young journalists are taking continent-wide investigations one step further—they are cultivating partnerships, many of them data-based, to cover topics that cross borders, like climate change, security, migration, and corporate tax avoidance. Depending on the story, their network allows them to include reporters from relevant countries.

Cross-border projects are getting more attention and funding as the EU expands and big data becomes more important. The group journalismfund.eu, where Alfter is chairwoman, started funding cross-border investigations in 2008 and has so far sponsored 22 projects on topics as diverse as human trafficking to following the flow of Belarusian money through the continent.

Depending on the need for security, reporters from multiple nations can hold meetings in person if they are worried about surveillance, but usually they conference on Skype, divvying up tasks and setting deadlines. They also need to agree on which apps and forms of communication they want to work with. In many cases, they never meet in person. English tends to be their working language. And collaborations can include both institutional as well as freelance journalists.

Jacopo Ottaviani, an Italian data journalist, says he uses a project management tool called Trello to keep track of tasks. Frenchman Nicolas Kayser-Bril helped developed an app, called Detective.io, that stores very large chunks of data. The transnational team helps ensure the data is accurate.

“It usually requires some sort of effort to check data and double check records, so if you are a team the work can be easily distributed. The team can also brainstorm the kind of research questions you want answered,” says Ottaviani.

European countries vary dramatically on Freedom of Information and privacy laws. Some countries, like Austria, have official secrecy written into their constitutions, making government data is hard to obtain. So cross-border collaborators depend on locally based members to work their reporting networks and secure the information via other channels and on member journalists from countries with more liberal FOIA laws, like Nordic states, the UK, or the Netherlands, where EU-wide information not available in other lands is often obtainable. Alfter was part of a group that erected a website, wobbing.eu, to help journalists get information through FOIA laws. “Wobbing” is Dutch journalism slang for getting information through FOI requests.

Still, obstacles remain even after data is compiled. European countries keep their own statistics in their own unique way and in their own language, and countries also may define categories differently. For instance, one may record “daily tobacco use” while another tracks “daily cigarette use.”

There are other, smaller headaches, too, like how to write numbers. Some countries, like the UK, use periods to differentiate between tens and tenths. Others, like the Germany, use commas. So 12,345.06 in one country would be expressed as 12.345,06 in another. Countries often have their own storytelling traditions, so an article written in Nordic style can’t simply be translated into French. “A French audience would not read it,” Alfter says. Once the database has been perfected and interviews completed, reporters are free to use the information.

“At the end of the day, you are responsible to your audience,” Alfter says. “You need to do your own factchecking.”

Already one effort, The Migrants’ Files, coordinated by Kayser-Bril and partially funded by journalismfund.eu, won a Data Journalism Award this year. Using data sets from multiple countries and sources, 10 journalists from news sites Neue Z├╝rcher Zeitung, El Confidencial, Sydsvenskan, Greek radio station Radiobubble, Italian journalist cooperative Dataninja, as well as freelance journalists Jean-Marc Manach and Ottaviani, joined forces to calculate the number of refugees who have died trying to reach Europe since 2000. The effort has so far spawned articles and visualizations in more than 25 publications.

“We know that many traditional journalists don’t speak as many languages as we do, don’t have the connections to the kinds of journalists that we do. It’s part of the fun,” Kayser-Bril says.

Ottaviani’s latest project is the Generation E, a crowdsourcing attempt to document European youth migration from Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece, countries hardest hit by the latest economic downturn. What they are finding is that the number of young people who have moved from their native countries is vastly underreported.

That is something that could only be done via cross-border collaboration. “We should stop thinking of ourselves as journalists from our own countries but as journalists from Europe, approaching our profession in a broader way,” Ottaviani says. “Data can foster this kind of cross border journalism because it is very flexible tool.”

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Alison Langley has more than 25 years experience in journalism as a reporter and editor. Her stories have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, The FT and The Independent. She currently lectures in journalism at Fachhochschule Wien and Webster University Vienna.