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“The Secret IRS Files”

Excellence in Business/Financial Reporting

ProPublica, 2022

Author(s): Staff | ProPublica


Using secret IRS documents obtained through an anonymous source, ProPublica pulled back the curtain on how ultrarich Americans get away with paying so little in income tax. 

The ProPublica team explains how the U.S. tax code allows a double standard, forcing average Americans to pay a higher percentage in income tax, while the wealthy avoid their fair share.

The story and subsequent follow-ups introduced a financial concept foreign to most Americans: buy (assemble assets), borrow (underwrite all living expenses by using stock as collateral for low-interest loans), and die (avoid capital gains taxes and pass on wealth to heirs while legally avoiding the estate tax). The series explored each step in the cycle and illuminated how some among the ultrawealthy have taken advantage of aspects of the tax code meant to help the middle class.

ProPublica translated the analysis into graphics and videos that offered readers multiple ways in which to engage with the information. A series of videos transported audiences to Planet Tax Avoidance, where the tax dodging maneuvers of the ultrawealthy came to life through playful animation. A scrolling infographic demonstrated how a corporation won a tax break that delivered a $64 million write-off to its CEO in a single year.

Publishing tax data could result in prosecution under the law. Despite the risk, ProPublica concluded it was in the public’s interest to publish selected taxpayers’ information, among them some of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful people.

ProPublica’s stories ignited a worldwide debate about wealth and inequality. The series changed the national conversation about tax policy and drew attention from the Biden administration regarding the Roth Individual Retirement Account loophole and the need for a wealth tax.