Let’s be honest, we’re all wopke

Judging individuals for their part in the Pandora Papers takes the focus off the root cause

Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra invested in a safari-startup in Africa called Asilia Africa and emerged in the Pandora Papers because of the British Virgin Islands bank account connected to the project. Obviously, journalists and opinion makers criticize the politician for his involvement in offshore banking and tax avoidance.

Since I’m in The Netherlands however, I’ve noticed how much we like to judge each other and share our opinions about almost everything. It annoys me because – that’s often the case when you’re irritated by something – I’m doing the same. It’s easy to be drawn into a loop of reading different points of views on social media during the day – e.g. about what’s in the newspaper – , hearing or watching the same topics getting discussed on radio or television towards the evening and reading it all over again in the next day’s newspaper.

It’s not that we shouldn’t point out the actions of a Finance Minister who supports the tax loopholes on this planet, it’s just that it’s so easy to focus on his individual deed when there is actually a much bigger underlying system to dismantle. And no big changes will happen when we keep each other entertained in our content loops. In fact, politicians are probably happy that we’re so engaged with our social media everyday that we hardly find time to take action for the long term.

What can journalism do to contribute to change?

I hear you think “So, what action should we take?”, “Isn’t it enough to publish about it?”. Well, sure, the work of a global collective of journalists collaborating under the umbrella of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) is admirable and brilliant. I’m even jealous of all the people who partnered in the project, I wish I was part of it. The Pandora Papers have all the ingredients of what journalism should be about in the first place. But our societies nowadays ask for more, doing thorough research and publishing about it is phase one. Phase two consists of engagement with our audience, which means not just sharing our views on Twitter to be seen and heard by your fellow journalists and opinion makers but reaching out to our readers and viewers and involving them in our findings.

This can be done, for example, either by organizing (online) meetings where people can ask questions to the journalists, discussion meetings about the results of the research or writing about the impact the investigation has on the daily life of your audience.

In the latter case, Dutch platform Oneworld publishes today an article about the fact that our country, The Netherlands, in itself is a tax haven and who does actually benefit from that? “Spoiler alert: you don’t benefit”, it says in the headline. This invites people to get an idea of how an abstract concept of tax paradise influences their life.

We as journalists tend to express our astonishment about the fact that nothing has really changed since The Panama Papers (2016), which revealed similar ethical wrongdoings by world leaders and influential people. But let’s look critically at ourselves and see what we as journalists could have done better to make our audience understand the root of the problem, so that they have the knowledge to vote for change in an upcoming election.

Journalism should be inclusive

I’ve already mentioned audience engagement. And yesterday I wrote about the need for a holistic approach and bigger context of the Pandora Papers and the fact that the revealings are rooted in our colonial history. Those are three characteristics of what inclusive journalism should entail. The other three I’ve mentioned in this article are:

  1. Long term commitment. Instead of ad hoc amazement about individual cases and daily matters, let’s focus on underlying systems and collective actions. This implies strong decision in the newsroom to not report on certain issues in favour of long term success.
  2. Conscious of unconscious bias. Let’s be honest, the fact that we like to blame individuals like Minister Wopke Hoekstra takes away the focus on our own daily actions that support the status quo. In some way or the other, we’re all Wopke. It’s time to look critically in the mirror and become aware of our own position in the story. Journalists aren’t located on a different planet, we’re born and raised in the same environment as Hoekstra.
  3. Enlighten not just inform. This relates to Solutions Journalism and means to report on the solutions that have been tried already to do something about the situation.

There was a tweet by journalist Megan K. Stack in my timeline yesterday that caught my attention, it says:

“An increasingly small pool of actual reporters are feeding an increasingly large and mostly parasitic mass of commentators, opinion-havers and people who reshape and selectively curate information they’ve gotten secondhand. It’s not a very healthy model for knowledge.”

I actually felt addressed by her message. Although I believe there is a difference between repeating the same news over and over again and becoming part of a spiral to nowhere, and taking a step back to observe what is actually going on and how to find tools to break the vicious circle. My goal is to contribute to the latter.