Netzwerk Recherche The Control of Power

Annual conference of Netzwerk Recherche
Annual conference of Netzwerk Recherche | Photo (detail): © Netzwerk Recherche

Investigative journalists shake things up because they ask questions and are not content to have something thrown to them. They demand explanations, want to see documents. They are sometimes surprisingly well informed, but never reveal their sources. Since 2001 they have joined forces in Netzwerk Recherche (NR).

The aim of the association NR is to strengthen research in the editorial offices of all media, to teach research techniques and support colleagues in their work. Because “research is one of the core tasks of every journalist – though unfortunately it is often woefully neglected”, says Oliver Schröm, executive director of Netzwerk Recherche.

Cuts, the loss of advertisers, the printing of free PR reports, the merging of editorial staffs, the sacking of full-time journalists – in many editorial offices there is simply not enough time and money to carry on protracted research. And possibly also not enough courage to demand that the publisher undertake to pay for the costly search for information.

Editorial staffs work together

For this reason, Netzwerk Recherche has contributed to having editorial staffs work together on increasingly complex issues. Thus, in a series printed in 2013, the North German Radio (NDR) and the researchers at the Süddeutsche Zeitung painstakingly identified where the agencies in Germany are located that collaborate with the American secret service NSA and how this cooperation works. And only in response to the concerted pressure exerted by various media was the Federal Ministry of the Interior willing, in the summer of 2013, to make the full doping report on the use of performance-enhancing drugs by professional athletes and Olympic participants since 1950 accessible to the public.

The association provides mentors and actively supports the training of journalists through seminars. An important part of its work consists in the teaching of research techniques. Although public authorities, public limited liability companies and other companies owned by the state are obliged to practice openness, what to do when a mayor remains silent or an office issues only excuses? Netzwerk Recherche provides answers to these questions in professional conferences, workshops and publications.

“Certainty before speed”

In 2006 the association published a Media Code, which furnished an orientation for professional practice in ten concisely formulated guiding principles. Principles such as “certainty before speed”, full protection of informants and waiver of personal gain are part of the code.
Every year the association confers the Leuchtturm Recherche (i.e., Research Lighthouse) award and a negative prize the Verschlossene Auster (i.e., Closed Oyster) on “information blockers” of the year. The winners of the 2013 Research Lighthouse award were Michael Obert and Moises Saman for their report on lawless bands in the Sinai desert. The Closed Oyster was taken home by, among others, FIFA (Féderation Internationale de Football Association) and Hans-Peter Friedrich, the ex-federal minister of the interior.

Skeleton in the closet

2011 Netzwerk Recherche almost experienced a “meltdown” – on, of all occasions, its tenth anniversary. The long-time executive director Thomas Leif had to resign because of financial irregularities. Leif had requested a grant of 75,000 euros from the Federal Agency for Civic Education, although this was not due to the association. This undermined the credibility of an association that upheld the ideals of decency and truthfulness and now had a skeleton in its own closet. It paid the money back, elected a new executive director and tightened its structures. Today Netzwerk Recherche is headed by Oliver Schröm (former city editor in Füssen) and Julia Stein (NDR research team). It is financed by membership and subscribers’ fees, funding from public and private institutions, advertising revenues and donations. Various publishers and broadcasters such as Gruner and Jahr, NDR, West German Broadcasting and the Süddeutsche Zeitung host regular association conferences.

How effectively can you use a database?

Once a year association members meet at the NDR in Hamburg for the annual conference. About 900 gathered together in June 2013. The focus of the conference was the use of databases and research in the age of online journalism. A point that Georg Mascolo, former editor-in-chief of the news magazine Der Spiegel, addressed in his speech to the conference made the audience prick up its ears. The Freedom of Information Act, which has ensured the right of access to official information from federal authorities since 2006, is a tool not only for journalists. Many citizens and NGOs also make use of it for obtaining information and have availed themselves of the possibilities offered by the social web. The opportunities this has opened up will be perhaps the theme of the next Network meeting.