Behind the Numbers: the Panama Papers and Wikipedia

Article published on April 11, 2016
Article published on April 11, 2016

There were more than 11.5 million confidential documents dating from the 1970s through to the present day – months and months of journalistic investigation, collected by hundreds of journalists. Yet it took just nine minutes to create the Wikipedia entry for the Panama Papers.

At 5:50pm on the 3rd of April 2016, the Guardian published an article entitled: Panama Papers: how the world’s rich and famous hide their money offshore. Barely 9 minutes later, months of journalistic work had begun to be summarised, not by professional reporters but instead by an editorial team of virtual volunteers writing for the English version of Wikipedia.

At the point of writing, the article had been modified 724 times since it first appeared online, by 223 different people. That’s approximately one modification every two and a half minutes. It’s a participatory effort of coordination, debate and verification that takes place alongside the work of large-scale media. That’s before mentioning those who translate the article into other languages.

The Panama Papers were uncovered thanks to the valuable work of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The name of the leak draws on an illustrious precedent: on the 13th of June 1971, nearly 7000 pages worth of classified documents relating to Vietnam – collected by the US Department of Defence – were photocopied and published in the New York Times under the name "the Pentagon Papers".

The leap from photocopiers to the Internet is immense; we may never know if nine minutes constitutes a record. Though one thing is sure: in the future, those who want to find out more about the "leak of the century" are more likely to find themselves on the Wikipedia page than an article from the Guardian.

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This article is part of our Behind the Numbers series, illustrating newsworthy stats with artistic design and a brief analysis.