One of the most shocking journalistic works of the Ukraine war contained intercepted radio transmissions to Russian soldiers showing a confused invasion, whose conversations were even interrupted by a hacker who literally whistled “Dixie”, a popular tune from the American South. .
It was the work of an investigative journalism unit of The New York Times, specializing in open source reporting, which uses publicly available material such as satellite images, cell phone or security camera recordings, geolocation and other internet tools to count the acts.
The field is in its infancy, but it is quickly catching on.
The Washington Post announced last month that it would add six people to its video forensics team, doubling its size. The University of California at Berkeley this fall became the first university to offer an investigative journalism class that focuses specifically on these techniques.
Two video reports produced by open source teams—“Day of Rage,” the Times reconstruction of the January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol, and a Post piece on how a 2020 racial protest was suppressed in Washington’s Lafayette Square—won the duPont-Columbia Awards for Excellence in Digital and Mass Media Journalism.
Intercepted radio transmissions in Ukraine, where Russian soldiers were complaining about lack of supplies and faulty equipment, were verified and brought to life with video and eyewitness reports from the city where they were operating.
At one point, what appears to be a Ukrainian intruder is heard. “Go home,” he advised in Russian. “It is better to be a deserter than a fertilizer.”
The New York Times visual investigations unit, which began in 2017 and now has 17 members, “is absolutely one of the most exciting growth areas we have,” said Joe Kahn, executive editor.
The work is thorough. “Day of Rage” consists primarily of videos shot by protesters themselves—in the emotionally charged days before they realized posting them online could get them into trouble—along with footage from law enforcement and journalists. . It specifically describes how the attack started, who the ringleaders were, and how some people were killed.
The video investigation also contradicted an initial Pentagon account of a US drone strike that killed civilians in Afghanistan last year. “Seeking our protection, they became some of the latest casualties in America’s longest war,” the report says.
“There is an overwhelming amount of evidence on the open web that, if you know how to turn the stones and reveal that information, allows you to connect the dots between all these facts to get to the undisputed truth about an event,” explained Malachy Browne, who leads the Times team.
“Day of Rage” has been viewed nearly 7.3 million times on YouTube. A Post investigation into the deaths at a 2021 Travis Scott concert in Houston has been viewed more than 2 million times, and its reporting on George Floyd’s last moments had nearly 6.5 million views.
The Post team is the result of efforts begun in 2019 to verify the authenticity of potentially newsworthy videos. There are many ways to eliminate spoofing, including shadow examination to determine if the apparent time of day on video corresponds to when the supposedly recorded activity actually occurred.
“The Post has seen the kind of impact this kind of storytelling can have,” said Nadine Ajaka, leader of its visual forensics team. “It’s another tool in our reporting mechanisms. It is very good because it is transparent. It allows readers to understand what we know and what we don’t know by showing it clearly.”
Still new, open source storytelling is not bound by rules governing the length or form of reporting. A video can be a few minutes long or, in the case of “Day of Rage”, 40 minutes. The work can be independent or be part of a story in text. They can be research or experiences. The Times used security and cellphone video, along with interviews, to tell the story of an apartment building in Ukraine as the Russians invaded it.
Leaders in the new field cite the work of the Storyful website, which calls itself a social media intelligence agency, and Bellingcat as pioneers. Bellingcat, an investigative news website, and its leader, Eliot Higgins, are best known for covering the Syrian civil war and investigating alleged Russian involvement in the 2014 downing of a Malaysian Airlines flight over Ukraine.
The Arab Spring in the early 2010s was another key moment. Many of the protests were coordinated in a digital space, and journalists who could navigate through it had access to a world of information, explained Alexa Koenig, executive director of the Center for Human Rights at the University of California at Law School. Berkeley.
The commercial availability of satellite imagery was also a milestone. The Times used satellite imagery to quickly refute Russian claims that atrocities in Ukraine were staged.
Other new forms of technology, such as artificial intelligence, are helping journalists looking for information about how something happened when they couldn’t be on the scene. In 2018, the Times worked with a London company to artificially rebuild a building in Syria, helping contradict official denials about the use of chemical weapons.
Similarly, The Associated Press built a 3D model of a Russian-bombed theater in Mariupol and, combining it with video and interviews with survivors, produced an investigative report that concluded more people died there than previously believed.
The AP also worked with Koenig’s team on an investigation into the terrorist tactics of Myanmar’s military government and used models to examine the cost of the war in a Gaza neighborhood. She is currently collaborating with PBS’s Frontline to collect evidence of war crimes in Ukraine and is looking to expand her digital efforts. Experts cite the BBC’s “Africa Eye” as another notable work in this field.
As these investigations expand, Koenig said journalists need to make sure their reporting drives the tools they employ, not the other way around. Now she hears regularly from news organizations looking to build their own investigative units and need her advice, or students of hers. Haley Willis, a Berkeley graduate, is on Browne’s team at the Times.
It feels, Koenig added, like a sea change has occurred in the last year.
Browne says that the goal of the reports created by his department is to create impactful stories that touch on larger truths. For example, an investigation into a Palestinian doctor who was shot by an Israeli soldier in the Gaza Strip focused as much on the conflict in general as on his death.
“We have similar mandates,” the Post’s Ajaka said, “which are to help make sense of some of the most urgent news of the day.”