5 takeaways from Behind the Scenes of The FinCEN Files

Gracie McKenzie (@graciemckenzie), Chair of the volunteer ONA Resource Team, compiled these key moments from the ONA20 session on Oct. 8, 2020. To view a recording of the session, register for on-demand access to the ONA20 archive. Session participants included:

5 key takeaways:

  1. “The FinCEN was a truly enormous journalistic collaboration,” Azeen Ghorayshi says: BuzzFeed News shared thousands of pages of secret government documents with ICIJ, and 400 reporters in 88 countries helped sort through them. The documents and follow-up interviews reveal how big banks enable some of the worst crimes on the planet committed by terrorists, drug cartels and despots.
  2. As journalists, our instinct can be to “hoard our documents or sourcing,” Anthony Cormier says. But especially with a project of this size and scope, collaboration and sharing allowed Buzzfeed to cover more ground and have more impact than they would have alone. And, Cormier says, ICIJ was a logical partner, as they have “the infrastructure to pull something like this off at such a grand scale … with [a high] level of secrecy and professionalism.”
  3. Three parts of the larger story that stood out to panelists: HSBC, Venezuela and Turkmenistan.
  4. What can reporters with less time and less resources take away from this sort of enormous project? Cormier answers: 1) Always follow the money. “That is the clearest fundamental thing we can do to understand the way systems work.” 2) Get in the habit of getting people to give you things they are not supposed to give you.
  5. How ICIJ keeps project communications secret: Upfront agreements about privacy and secrecy with all partners; an encrypted communications tool called the Global AI hub, which Emilia Diaz-Struck calls “a 24/7 virtual newsroom” for sharing findings/guidelines/highlights/documents; another tool called Data Share that is open source, can be used by people outside their network, and has the documents. But Fergus Shiel adds, “It’s all about trust really; the systems are fantastic but if you don’t trust each other, you’re going nowhere.”


Memorable/tweetable quotes:

  • “This is the first time that the public is actually getting to see, you know, what a SAR looks like, what it means … so this really is unprecedented.” —Jason Leopold
  • “We were able to sort of understand that there really is no difference between the legitimate economy and this sort of so-called dark economy, that this this suspicious money was flowing into industries that you and I interact with on a day-to-day basis.” —Anthony Cormier
  • “For any project to work on this size, it requires ambition, it requires a public interest, operating in the public good. And it also requires, you know, a huge amount of hard work.” —Fergus Shiel
  • “It’s all about trust really, the systems are fantastic but if you don’t trust each other, you’re going nowhere.” —Fergus Shiel
  • “Our digital hygiene is really important.” —Anthony Cormier
  • “The Panama Papers is four years old and … people are still going to jail because of it.” —Fergus Shiel
  • “I don’t know if you guys have ever met Jason Leopold but I don’t think the words ‘let go’ are in his vocabulary, so I don’t think we’re gonna be going anywhere, anytime soon.” —Anthony Cormier

Links to additional resources