Investigative research is time-consuming, ties up personnel resources – and yet is indispensable. An increasing number of German media are responding to this and joining forces to form research pools. But they are not without controversy.
At the end of 2011, cooperation was initiated between the public broadcaster North German Radio (NDR) and the German subscription daily newspaper with the widest circulation, the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ). Like all German media, the NDR and the SZ were investigating intensively the background to the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a right-wing extremist association that became known in November 2011. “We’d already worked well together in the previous years”, recalls Stephan Wels, Head of the Investigation Department of NDR. “One of our staff was also under contract to the research team of the SZ.” And so the two editorial offices began to share important information with each other.
Out of this cooperation has grown in the meantime one of the best-known German research pools for investigative journalism. Since 2014 the West German Radio (WDR) has also been a member of the network. Together, the NDR, WDR and SZ took part in the revelations about America’s secret drone war, the role of the German Federal Intelligence Service in the NSA affair, the dirty dealings of a Swiss bank (“Swiss Leaks”) and the so far biggest scoop, the money laundering practices of so-called “offshore” companies (“Panama Papers”).
Networks against the media crisis
Joining together in research pools appears to be logical in the face of the difficult conditions under which investigative journalists in Germany are working today. “There are fewer and fewer editorial offices that are prepared to furnish the necessary resources”, says Frank Überall, President of the German Journalists Association (DJV). On the one hand, German media are increasingly cutting personnel; on the other, the general workload is growing. “Today more quantitative output is demanded. And it is precisely investigative research that is in the nature of the case qualitatively very elaborate, and that then is sometimes in danger of falling by the wayside.”
In the research cooperation between the NDR, WDR and SZ, the investigative departments of the individual media enable their journalists to remain on the sidelines of daily business and to work their way into a subject. The second step is pooling of competencies in the form of “occasion and theme-related cooperation”, as Stephan Wels describes it. As soon as a medium is sent explosive information and it transpires that a partner is also working on the same topic, there is the possibility of exchange. “In this way research can clearly gain in depth. It allows us to validate and supplement information.”
Research is becoming increasingly international
More and more topics have international relevance. The Research Pool pulled off its biggest-yet coup in April 2016 with the publication of the so-called Panama Papers. These comprised in the end about 11.5 million documents and could not be managed alone by a single medium such as the Süddeutsche Zeitung
, to which the data were leaked. “Such a task can be handled only in an alliance”, says Wels. In the case of the Panama Papers, those taking part went far beyond the national network of NDR, WDR and SZ. Responsible for the analysis and preparation of the data, which occupied 400 journalists worldwide, was the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
Pooling competencies and international cooperation make sense; but there has also been criticism of the research network. When cooperating investigative departments share skills, this can lead to a weakening of in-house investigative formats – for instance, the TV political magazine of the ARD, says Frank Überall. “The real problem is the editorial policy of cutbacks.” If this results in increasingly fewer available means for regional research, he explains, big networks with supra-regional subjects are no solution, and in the worst case are even counter-productive. “Their successes shouldn’t serve as a fig leaf for existing shortcomings.”
Media law reservations
Another reservation concerns laws pertaining to media. The scope of the public broadcasting service in Germany is clearly defined. Cooperation between state and private broadcasters is possible in principle, but only in warranted cases. If such an association becomes permanent, it could lead to a distortion of competition. German public broadcasting is financed by fees. In the case of the NDR, WDR, SZ Research Pool, the following question arises: if the private company SZ profits from the work of public broadcasters, does this then count as a covert subsidy by the fee payer?
Wels has little use for these criticisms. For one, he observes a general extension of investigative commitment, also in cooperation with local editorial offices. “The recognition that good and successful journalism is so important for the public broadcasting system has led to an expansion of resources at the NDR.” He also finds the allegation of unfair competition not really cogent. “The SZ has no access whatever to the resources of the public broadcasting system. It is exclusively a matter of the exchange of information.” Moreover, he says, media cooperation along the lines of the NDR, WRD and SZ is now commonplace. “The principle that it’s good to be strong in the investigative area, and that it makes sense to join forces with partners, has long been widely established.”