BRUSSELS - Two and a half years. That’s how long it took Joris Luyendijk to map out the financial sector. In the summer of 2011 he started investigating the social mechanisms in the financial sector, without knowing anything about it. He shared his insights and discoveries on The Guardian’s banking blog—and now at the Dataharvest Conference in Brussels, too.

“In the beginning I knew absolutely nothing about the world of banking,” he admits. “But we expected that 99% of our readers didn’t either.” The Guardian’s idea was simple: to send someone out who knows as little about the world of banking as they do, and then follow his learning curve.

Silent Sources

Luyendijk did 200 interviews in total, but the first few weeks it was hard to even find one person willing to talk. “In the financial world you can’t just look for sources and talk with them,” he explains. “Bankers will only talk to you if they’re accompanied by a PR person—or they’re fired. Of course that makes it difficult to find someone who will tell you more than a ready-made comment.”

After some phone calls without much result, Luyendijk made an appeal to bankers via the website of The Guardian. Eventually he found ten people who were or had been active in banking and he let them talk about day-to-day things. The approach: “tell me what it’s like to be you”. Luyendijk, who graduated as an anthropologist, asked them open, everyday questions. His approach worked: after the first interviews weren published, others contacted him for an interview themselves.

The comment section of the blog was important from the beginning. In addition to verifying the testimonies, it acted as a sounding board for readers and interviewees. In the beginning a lot of sources complained about hateful comments on the website. So Luyendijk gave them an anonymous login and let them react to the readers’ doubts. In that way, his own questions were supplemented with a —mostly thorough— interaction between the interviewee and the readers. “In addition to being an interviewer, you are sort of like a party organiser,” the journalist says with a touch of pride.

Omniscient Or Discoverer?

My role in the banking blog was vastly different than that of a traditional journalist doing a critical analysis,” Luyendijk states. “You don’t portray yourself as an omniscient reporter with all the answers, but as a discoverer with an interesting question. This type of journalism requires a different type of journalists. The macho journalist who boasts about scoops doesn’t fit the bill.”

“I was very fortunate not to have to write about current affairs on the banking blog,” says Luyendijk. “I didn’t have to think too much about competition with other media, about liability or about other news events. What was important, however, was for me to fully anonimise my sources without making readers feel they were being kept in the dark too much.”

Asked the question if he double-checked the information his sources gave him Luyendijk answers, “when you anonimise the story, you leave out all details about specific banks or markets, which means a lot of data is lost. But for me it wasn’t about hard facts, but rather about tendencies, attitudes and interactions. You can quickly see if a story seems to be a continuation of a previous interview, or if it is completely separate. I regularly just go on intuition, but just as often I consult people I know who are active in the sector. Of course you are sometimes confronted with angry or emotionally unstable sources. Those stories went straight to the bin.”

The Watergate Effect

In Luyendijk’s view, the financial world is one of those sectors where you trust the people at the top to not let any really terrible things happen—but a few years ago that’s exactly what did happen. Luyendijk’s unremittant interest in social systems behind the world’s biggest myths seems to be interwoven with a social commitment and dissatisfaction this time. “Nobody went to jail after the banking crisis in 2008,” he says. “Apparently you can crash the world economy without doing anything illegal. That shouldn’t be possible!”

And yet, every newsroom has critical journalists with expertise in a certain domain, Luyendijk believes: “if you want to catch the bad guys or fight injustice, you need hardcore journalists who can bring a new news story based on verifiable facts. Unfortunately, most of the time journalists just copy stuff from big news agencies—and don’t do any Watergate-worthy research. Many colleagues may compare themselves to Carl Bernstein, but in the end look more like conveyor belt operators. With the rise of the Internet, we could easily take some journalists away from that conveyor belt and let them write other, more valuable stories that, for example, map out certain systems in society.”


By Anneleen Ophoff
Translation by Rafael Njotea