Lesson Plans

"The Panama Papers" Exposes Wrongdoing by Offshore Companies

Leak of more than 11 million documents show heads of state, criminals and celebrities using secret hideaways in tax havens.


Students will be able analyze the structure and tone of "The Panama Papers" investigative reporting project in order to devise and investigate questions about how companies are using offshore firms.


Businessdictionary.com defines an offshore company as a “firm registered or incorporated outside the country where it has its main offices and operations, or where its principal investors reside.”

Why might a person or a company create an offshore company? Write a list of reasons and be prepared to share with the class. Consider, what might be possible for a person or company if they open a firm (company) in a country where they don’t conduct most of their business?

Introducing the Lesson:

Today’s lesson explores the vast investigative reporting project "The Panama Papers." Investigative reporting projects require lengthy, in-depth research about a particular subject. Some projects take months or years to report. The Panama Papers was prompted by the leak of 11.5 million documents from Mossack Fonseca, a law firm in Panama.

Researched by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, "The Panama Papers" begins with the following introduction:

“The Panama Papers is a global investigation into the sprawling, secretive industry of offshore that the world’s rich and powerful use to hide assets and skirt rules by setting up front companies in far-flung jurisdictions. Based on a trove of more than 11 million leaked files, the investigation exposes a cast of characters who use offshore companies to facilitate bribery, arms deals, tax evasion, financial fraud and drug trafficking.

Behind the email chains, invoices and documents that make up the Panama Papers are often unseen victims of wrongdoing enabled by this shadowy industry. This is their story.”

On your own, or with a partner, describe the tone of the introduction. Consider, why do you think the authors use the terms “secretive” and “shadowy”? In a short written description, explain how the author uses language to achieve that tone.

As you continue to explore "The Panama Papers" using the following resources and extension activities, consider the following:

  • How did the authors structure their reporting? Where do they use numbers and where do they use stories?
  • What is the tone of the reporting? How do the authors achieve that tone?
  • As the investigative journalists unfold their reporting, what questions do you still want answered? What questions are coming to your mind?

Introducing the Resources:

1. Read the project description and answer the questions attached. Read here for a more detailed explanation of the Panama Papers and how they were obtained.

2. Watch the video “The Panama Papers: Victims of Offshore” and answer the questions attached.

Brainstorming Questions to Continue Investigating:

Within hours of publishing a post about "The Panama Papers," the Pulitzer Center began receiving additional questions from readers through its comment sections. One asked, “Can we search the Panama Papers?” Others ask if current presidential candidates are among the clients represented by these offshore finance companies.

Write a list of 5-10 questions you still have about the Panama Papers. Go to https://panamapapers.icij.org/ to investigate the answers to your questions, and then write a report of your findings. As you write, try to use language that achieves a similar tone to the rest of the project.

Extension Activities:

1. The journalists that investigated The Panama Papers have also structured their reporting in the form of an interactive game. Click here to play the game. As you play, write your responses to the following questions:

  • What are the journalists reporting through this game? What are they trying to teach?
  • Why do you think they chose a game to present these topics?
  • How would you describe the tone of the game?

2. Read one of the following articles released as part of the reporting project The Panama Papers. After reading the articles, write a short essay describing how the authors unfolded their analyses and the tones that they established through their reporting.

Educator Notes: 

This lesson for middle school and high school students introduces the investigative reporting project "The Panama Papers" and explores how authors unfold a story to achieve a specific tone.


Analyze how the author unfolds an analysis or series of ideas or events, including the order in which the points are made, how they are introduced and developed, and the connections that are drawn between them.


Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that relate the current discussion to broader themes or larger ideas; actively incorporate others into the discussion; and clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions.

Lesson Facilitation Notes:

1. The lesson plan is written for students to be able to explore the resources independently and reflection exercises independently. However, students would probably benefit from whole group or small group discussion after each section.

2. Students may need to have an extra sheet of paper, or a blank online document open, to answer the warm up, comprehension and extension questions.

3. The lesson lists two extension exercises. Students could choose one or work through all of the listed exercises.

4. The warm up and post-reading reflections in this lesson could also lead to rich conversations. You may want to work through the lesson along with the students and denote moments for interactive activities.

5. With questions about this lesson, contact education@pulitzercenter.org

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