|JON ALLSOP, CJR|AIWA! NO!|The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists broke its latest big story over the weekend. Bringing together more than 250 reporters from 36 countries and 59 news organizations—including the BBC, NBC News, the AP, Le Monde, and Süddeutsche Zeitung—the group has started to unveil massive problems plaguing the global medical devices industry. ICIJ and its partners flagged more than 1.7 million injuries and 83,000 deaths linked to implants such as pacemakers, breast implants, and spinal cord stimulators, which manufacturers move around the world as regulators flounder and patients and doctors are left in the dark.
The devices investigation was born out of the work of Jet Schouten, a Dutch reporter who, in 2014, asked European regulators to approve what she claimed was a vaginal mesh, but was actually the netting used to hold mandarin oranges at the grocery store. (None of the three bodies Schouten approached took serious issue with her fake product.) Late last year, based on this reporting and years of arduous follow-up work, ICIJ approved a global look at the devices industry. For the past five months, I sat inside its investigation for CJR, hanging out on conference calls, interviewing partner journalists in 11 countries, and spending time with Schouten in the Netherlands.
The operation I observed was flush with confidence and camaraderie, and deeply impressive. That should not be surprising: ICIJ and the collaborative model it pioneered are having a moment. Two years ago, the group dropped the Panama Papers, a massive leak of offshore tax documents that exposed the accounting tricks of the rich and powerful and landed with a big global splash, implicating a succession of world leaders. The effort sparked the resignation of Iceland’s prime minister, then won a Pulitzer, then inspired a nascent Netflix movie that is set to star Meryl Streep. Last year, ICIJ followed up with the Paradise Papers, a second leaks story drawing on 13 million more offshore records.
ICIJ has been around for 21 years, during which it has worked on many different types of story. The medical devices project was nonetheless a departure from its acclaimed recent work, and thus a fresh test of its model. Could a collaboration based on painstaking (and often frustrating) shoe-leather reporting and public-records analysis work at the same grand scale as an investigation rooted in a single, centralized leak? And could a consumer affairs-facing story have the same impact as the salacious secrets of the world’s super-rich?
While every indication suggests the project navigated its technical complexities smoothly, the impact question remains open. Industry and regulators are already paying attention to ICIJ’s findings: yesterday, the US Food and Drug Administration promised to overhaul its device approval rules. Change, however, comes more easily in some countries than in others. As Lebanese journalist Alia Ibrahim told me, while many ICIJ partners were “waiting for the earthquakes that are going to happen once they publish,” in Lebanon, “I could give you 100 examples of how investigations proving corruption, proving malpractice, didn’t lead to anybody being held accountable.” And, globally speaking, ICIJ only deals with regulatory failures that are both widespread and entrenched—and, therefore, likely to be persistent.
As splashy as the Panama Papers were, efforts to overhaul global tax architecture in the time since have largely failed. ICIJ can’t force change, no matter how many journalists it might corral behind its work. But that isn’t the point of the organization. ICIJ is like any top-class individual newsroom, only much bigger. Its model empowers news organizations the world over to shine a spotlight into deep darkness, then joins those spotlights together to make a powerful single beam.
Below, more on ICIJ’s latest investigation:
- The Implant Files: You can find all ICIJ’s stories here, its overview of the global medical-devices industry here, and a full list of partners here.
- Under the skin: In my piece for CJR, I go into much more detail about how ICIJ followed through on the project, and what it means for the organization going forward.
- In the US: For the AP, Meghan Hoyer looks at problems with breast implants, and Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr lay out how spinal cord stimulators have left some patients with agonizing injuries. For NBC News, meanwhile, Andrew W. Lehren, Emily R. Siegel, and Sarah Fitzpatrick track how US-made devices export pain overseas, and, conversely, how devices withdrawn from the market overseas can remain on sale in the US.
- “All Meshed Up”: Watch Schouten and her colleagues at Dutch public broadcaster AVROTROS pass off mandarin orange netting as a vaginal mesh here.