NEW YORK – One of the most remarkable journalistic pieces from the Ukraine war intercepted radio transmissions by Russian soldiers hinting at an invasion in disarray, their conversations were even interrupted by a hacker literally whistling “Dixie.”
It was the work of a New York Times investigative unit specializing in open-source reporting, using publicly available material such as satellite imagery, cellphone or surveillance camera footage, geolocation, and other Internet tools to tell stories.
The field is still in its infancy, but is catching on quickly. The Washington Post announced last month that it was adding six people to its video forensics team, doubling the size. The University of California at Berkeley last fall became the first college to offer an investigative reporting course specifically focused on these techniques.
Two video reports from open source teams — The Times’ “Day of Wrath” Reconstructing the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot and the Post’s look at how a 2020 race protest took place in Washington Lafayette Square was cleared out – won duPont Columbia awards for excellence in digital and broadcast journalism.
Ukrainian radio transmissions, in which soldiers complained of a lack of supplies and faulty equipment, were reviewed and brought to life with video and eyewitness accounts from the city where they were operating.
At some point, what appears to be a Ukrainian intruder breaks in.
“Go home,” he advised her in Russian. “It is better to be a deserter than fertilizer.”
The Times’ visual investigative unit, which was founded in 2017 and now has 17 employees, “is absolutely one of the most exciting areas of growth that we have,” said Joe Kahn, new editor-in-chief.
The work is meticulous. “Day of Rage” consists primarily of videos made by protesters themselves in the turbulent days before they realized that publishing them online could get them into trouble, along with footage from law enforcement and journalists. It details how the attack began, who the ringleaders were, and how people were killed.
Video sleuthing also contradicted an original Pentagon story about one American drone attack killing civilians in Afghanistan last year. “By seeking protection from us, they instead became some of the final casualties in America’s longest war,” the report said.
“There is just this overwhelming amount of evidence on the open internet that if you know how to turn the stones and uncover this information, you can connect the dots between all these factoids to arrive at the undeniable truth about an event to get to,” he told Malachy Browne, who leads the Times team.
“Day of Rage” was Nearly 7.3 million views on YouTube. A Post Inquiry into Deaths in 2021 Travis Scott concert in Houston has been viewed more than 2 million times and its story continues The final moments of George Floyd recorded almost 6.5 million views.
The Post team is the result of an effort begun in 2019 to verify the authenticity of potentially newsworthy videos. There are many ways to smoke out fakes, including examining shadows to determine if the apparent time of day in the video matches the time the supposedly captured activity actually took place.
“The Post has seen the impact this type of storytelling can have,” said Nadine Ajaka, leader of the visual forensics team. “It’s another tool in our reporting mechanisms. It’s really beautiful because it’s transparent. It allows readers to understand what we know and don’t know by simply showing it.”
What’s new is that open-source storytelling isn’t bound by rules that dictate the length or shape of the story. A video can last a few minutes or, in the case of “Day of Rage”, 40 minutes. Works can stand alone or be embedded in text stories. They can be investigations or experiences; The Times used security and cellphone video, as well as interviews, to tell the story a residential building in Ukraine when the Russians invaded.
Leading experts in the field cite the work of website Storyful, which bills itself as a social media intelligence agency, and Bellingcat as pioneers. Bellingcat, an investigative news website, and its director, Eliot Higgins, are best known for covering the Syrian civil war and investigating alleged Russian involvement in the 2014 downing of a Malaysia Airlines flight over Ukraine.
The Arab Spring of the early 2010s was another key moment. Many of the protests were coordinated in a digital space, and journalists who could navigate them had access to a world of information, said Alexa Koenig, executive director of the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley Law School.
The commercial availability of satellite imagery was also a milestone. The Times used satellite imagery to quickly refute Russian claims that atrocities committed in Ukraine were staged.
Other technologies, including artificial intelligence, are helping journalists seeking information about how something happened when they couldn’t be there. The Times partnered with a London company in 2018 Artificially reconstruct buildings in Syria who helped counter official denials about the use of chemical weapons.
Similarly, The Associated Press constructed a 3D model of a theater in Mariupol bombed by the Russians and combined it with videos and interviews with survivors and produced a investigation report which concluded that more people died there than previously thought.
AP also worked with Koenig’s team on one Investigations into terrorist tactics of Myanmar’s military rule and used modeling for a study on the war victims in a neighborhood in Gaza. It works with PBS’ frontline to rally evidence of war crimes in Ukraine and is looking to further expand its digital efforts. Experts quote BBCs “Africa Eye” as another notable effort in this area.
As efforts increase, Koenig says journalists need to ensure their stories drive the tools used, and not the other way around. She now regularly hears from news organizations that want to set up their own investigative units and need her advice – or students. Berkeley grad Haley Willis is on Browne’s team at The Times.
It feels, said Koenig, as if a big change has taken place in the past year.
Browne said the goal of his unit’s reporting is to create stories with impact that touch on broader truths. An investigation into a Palestinian medic shot dead of an Israeli soldier in the Gaza Strip was less about the conflict in general and more about her death, for example.
“We have similar mandates,” the Post’s Ajaka said, “which are designed to help make sense of some of the most pressing news stories of the day.”
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https://www.local10.com/entertainment/2022/05/08/detailed-open-source-news-investigations-are-catching-on/ Detailed research on “open source” news prevails