7 ways to imply guilt in the ‘Paradise Papers’ coverage
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7 ways to imply guilt in the ‘Paradise Papers’ coverage

November 6, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Media consortium examines leaked financial documents detailing offshore investments

On Sunday, media outlets reported investment information extracted from millions of documents that were leaked from law firms operating in offshore financial centers, or “tax havens.” More than six months ago, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung shared the documents, known as the “Paradise Papers,” with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) so the offshore investments could be investigated. Appleby, one of the firms from which documents were released, said it has investigated the allegations and is “satisfied that there is no evidence of any wrongdoing, either on the part of ourselves or our clients.” Appleby described the leak as an illegal hack of its system.

More than 13.4 million documents are being analyzed, including emails, bank statements and loan agreements. Appleby is a 119-year old law firm that operates from Bermuda and in other “tax havens,” including the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Isle of Man, as well as Hong Kong and Shanghai. The term “tax haven” is used to describe countries with no taxes or low tax rates, and with minimal disclosure requirements to foreign tax authorities.  

Some of the other “Paradise Paper” documents originate from the Singapore-based Asiaciti Trust, and the others come from 19 business registries located in places including Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Lebanon and Malta.  

The Associated Press (AP) reported that some documents refer to U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ business dealings, including his investment in Navigator Holdings. The BBC reported that some of the documents show Queen Elizabeth invested about US$13 million of her private money offshore. Neither AP nor the BBC reported any evidence of illegal activity or tax evasion by Ross, Queen Elizabeth or anyone else.

The ICIJ, based in Washington, D.C., won the Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the so-called Panama Papers last year. Those papers, comprised of 11.5 million documents, were leaked from Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, to the same German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung. Some politicians named in the Panama Papers resigned following their release, including Iceland’s prime minister, after members of the public, the opposition and his own party called for his resignation; Pakistan’s prime minister, found by the Supreme Court to have been “dishonest” by not disclosing earnings during his 2013 nomination; and a Spanish anti-corruption prosecutor whose boss described him as having “no irregularity or illegality in his behavior,” and who had resigned for “personal reasons.”

Distortion Highlights

  • We identified seven ways the media implies the “Paradise Papers” investigation is uncovering wrongdoing.
  • It’s possible the investigation might expose criminal activity, but it’s premature to assume this.
  • See why slanted coverage such as this limits critical thinking and damages those summoned to the court of public opinion.

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

View Technical Sheet >

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion)

Top Spin Words

  • Crisis

    Critics of the widening gap between the super-wealthy and the rest have seized upon the use of tax havens as revealed in the Panama Papers as evidence of a crisis, and governments have promised to crack down. (AP)

  • Made waves

    The papers also made waves in Silicon Valley, where they highlighted the ties between Russian state funds and a big investor in Twitter and Facebook. (Financial Times)

  • Veil of secrecy

    Many of the stories focus on how politicians, multinationals, celebrities and high-net-worth individuals use complex structures of trusts, foundations and shell companies to protect their cash from tax officials or hide their dealings behind a veil of secrecy. (BBC)

  • Think twice

    But with this latest leak, some wealthy individuals and multinational corporations may think twice about using offshore ownership structures, said Jack Blum, a lawyer who worked for decades on congressional committees investigating money transfers overseas. (The New York Times)

  • Hoards

    They say they do not sit on hoards of cash, but act as agents that help pump money around the globe. (BBC)

  • Ultra-wealthy/superrich

    A huge new leak of financial documents has revealed how the powerful and ultra-wealthy, including the Queen’s private estate, secretly invest vast amounts of cash in offshore tax havens. (BBC)

    But amid these are documents that help reveal how multinational companies avoid taxes and how the superrich hide their wealth. (The New York Times)

  • Propping up

    Mikhelson has also been sanctioned by the Treasury Department for propping up Putin’s rule. (AP)

  • Extensive

    The Guardian said the data also revealed extensive offshore dealings by Donald Trump’s cabinet members, advisers and donors, including substantial payments from a firm co-owned by Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law to the shipping group of the US commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross. (Financial Times)

  • Trove

    The release of that trove of documents led to the resignation of one prime minister last year and to the unmasking of the wealth of people close to President Vladimir V.Putin of Russia. (The New York Times)

    Much of the new trove of files includes bank statements, emails and loan agreements from Appleby, a law firm that helps set up offshore dummy companies and trusts. (AP)

No wrongdoing has been established so far in the “Paradise Papers” investigation. But this isn’t what you walk away with if you read the articles we analyzed. Here are seven ways we found the media implied guilt.

1. Position statements of non-guilt lower down

None of the articles addressed off the bat that no wrongdoing has been established. Those statements were placed further down in the articles — in the fifth paragraph in the best case (Financial Times), and the third to last paragraph in the worst case (The New York Times). Lowering these statements’ value through positioning weighs the implications of guilt disproportionately.

2. Focus on the possibility of wrongdoing above other options

The space these articles devoted to the notion of wrongdoing, compared to legal uses of offshore accounts, was also disproportionate. The most slanted article was AP’s, which only included two sentences (out of a total of 38) on the positive uses of offshore accounts. This, in part, earned the outlet a slant rating of 71 percent.

3. Suggest bad intent through word choice and juxtaposition

The outlets use terms such as “hide/hiding” and “secrecy/secretly” more often than terms like “privacy.” While the definitions are close, “secrecy” and “hiding” can suggest bad or fraudulent intent, or the desire to conceal something bad or wrongful. This is accentuated when the terms are juxtaposed with a majority of content that suggests possible wrongdoing, as the point above shows.

4. Single out people or groups

The BBC and the Financial Times devote a portion of their coverage to Queen Elizabeth (the latter mentions her name in its headline), and AP does the same with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Considering the running theme is some type of financial wrongdoing, it implicates the individuals who are singled out. And, if you look across various news outlets around the world that are covering this story, you’ll see the people they highlight are different — perhaps more relevant to their politics and culture.

5. Once you’ve named names, plant doubt

One of the greatest drawbacks of implication through juxtaposition is that it’s hard to erase from memory. The Financial Times, for instance, wrote that the “BBC said there was nothing illegal in the investments and no suggestion that the Queen was not paying tax. But it said questions might be asked about whether the monarch should be investing offshore.” It almost sounds as if it exonerates her, but really we’re left with the questions that “might be asked.”

6. Juxtapose other hot topics that also imply wrongdoing

AP’s coverage focused mostly on U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and the potential connections his investments may have to Russia. But the main reason that could matter now is the ongoing Russia investigations, which the outlet specifically cites. So it’s easy to connect the dots: Ross + Putin + Trump = collusion. Except nothing has been proven in a court of law.

7. Don’t question the object at hand

Are offshore accounts bad or problematic for society? Is it bad for people to avoid paying taxes if it doesn’t break any laws? Do people have a right to keep their financial records private, or is society entitled to pry? Were these leaks lawful, or do they violate the rights of these companies and their clients?

The media could encourage a rational conversation about taxes, offshore accounts and privacy rights, providing data that can help us evaluate the pros and cons in each case (click here for more on this). However, the above mechanisms foment a lack of critical evaluation of these topics, and they summon the court of public opinion to rule on the guilt or innocence of the people involved. It’s always possible that the investigation could expose some type of criminal activity, but remember, no wrongdoing has been proven at this point.

The presumption of innocence is a fundamental right in modern democracies, and is guaranteed by the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In a value-based system, it’s more efficient and ethical to presume a person’s innocence until proof of guilt is presented beyond a reasonable doubt. There’s a reason the U.S. justice system adheres to this principle, and why it would be optimal for the media to do so too.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 40% Spun

  • 45% Spun

  • 49% Spun

  • 62% Spun

Fiction
or
Fact

Associated Press

“Critics of the widening gap between the super-wealthy and the rest have seized upon the use of tax havens as revealed in the Panama Papers as evidence of a crisis, and governments have promised to crack down.”

Some people are critical of the use of offshore financial centers. Some countries are addressing the use of “tax havens,” such as Australia, whose Tax Office is investigating over 800 Australian clients named in the Panama Papers.

Financial Times

“The Guardian said the data also revealed extensive offshore dealings by Donald Trump’s cabinet members, advisers and donors …”

The “Paradise Papers” show some of Trump’s cabinet members, advisers and donors have offshore financial dealings.

BBC News

“[Offshore financial centers] say they do not sit on hoards of cash, but act as agents that help pump money around the globe.”

BBC writes, “The Boston Consulting Group says $10tn is held offshore.” None of the outlets we analyzed provide the facts to support the rest of BBC’s statement.

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in all sources

Appleby, in a public statement on Oct. 24, after inquiries from ICIJ, said that it was “subject to frequent regulatory checks” in “highly regulated jurisdictions.” (The New York Times)


Only the Times mentions that Appleby is subject to “frequent regulatory checks,” which means a regulatory process exists for such offshore service providers. However, the Times doesn’t mention the “Paradise Papers” show that Appleby has been identified as having “flawed compliance procedures” in 12 confidential audits conducted over a 10-year period.

In 2005, the Bermuda Monetary Authority ordered Appleby to improve 21 “deficiencies” in its performance and to obtain “fresh, accurate records of its clients’ passports, addresses and sources of wealth,” according to the ICIJ. A year later, Appleby reviewed a sampling of 45 of its clients and found that only one company met Appleby’s own standards for compliance.

A 2014 review by the Bermuda Monetary Authority showed that Appleby had not implemented the recommendations from previous audits. It said Appleby’s omissions had “heightened the Authority’s concern about the firm’s regulatory compliance and control environment.” According to ICIJ, a spokesman for the Bermuda Monetary Authority “would not confirm or deny enforcement decisions.”

Headlines

An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Focuses on a single connection out of a data set of 13.4 million documents.

Depending on how one evaluates it, there are four or more degrees of separation between Ross and Putin, based on these articles. The headline’s focus on this particular connection is slanted and possibly sensational, given the U.S.’ investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Implies it’s bad to privately invest or “hide” money offshore and it’s good to expose it, or “shine light” on it.

This slants the coverage toward one perspective on the matter. A more neutral and less implicating approach to the same data might be to say the files disclose where people have privately invested their money.

Claims the papers expose tax evasion, which hasn’t been established.

The headline doesn’t mention that Appleby, a firm with information leaked in the “Paradise Papers,” said it was “satisfied that there is no evidence of any wrongdoing.” This would presumably include tax evasion.

Balance

Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • The leaked documents show that Commerce Secretary Ross owns shares in Navigator Holdings, a company that does business with a Russian-owned gas and chemical company. This may support the accusations that the Trump administration has ties to Russia, which might lead readers to believe the allegations of “collusion” are correct. (AP)
  • The “Paradise Papers” demonstrate how wealthy people use offshore accounts to avoid taxes, hide their business activities and engage in questionable business deals.
  • Like the “Panama Papers” case of 2016, these leaked documents may provide information that leads to legal consequences for the parties involved, like the indictment of Pakistan’s former prime minister, or the money laundering charges against the Mossack Fonseca law firm.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • AP’s information leaves many unanswered questions. How long has Ross owned the stock? Was he aware that Navigator Holdings is doing business with the Russian company? Additionally, whatever conclusions we may draw from the allegations of Russia’s connection to the Trump campaign, they’re premature until the investigations conclude.
  • Offshore accounts are legal and have valid uses. The privacy afforded by using such accounts may imply the dealings are underhanded, but this isn’t necessarily true. There could be many legitimate reasons for seeking privacy, which aren’t addressed in these articles.
  • Any wrongdoing would only be revealed through an investigation, such as the Panama Papers investigations spearheaded by the ICIJ and carried out by a variety of authorities in different countries. Then again, these leaked documents may just be routine records of financial transactions that are perfectly legal.