By David Bauder
NEW YORK (AP) — One of the most striking pieces of Ukrainian war journalism featured intercepted radio transmissions from Russian soldiers indicating a messy invasion, their conversations even interrupted by a hacker literally hissing “Dixie.”
It was the work of a New York Times investigative unit specializing in open-source reporting, using publicly available material like satellite images, cellphone or security camera recordings, geotagging and other Internet tools for telling stories.
The estate is in its infancy but is rapidly gaining momentum. The Washington Post announced last month that it was adding six people to its video forensics team, doubling its size. Last fall, the University of California, Berkeley became the first university to offer an investigative reporting class that focuses specifically on these techniques.
Two video reports from open source teams – the Times’ “Day of Rage” reconstruction of the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot and the Post’s look at how a 2020 racial protest in Washington’s Lafayette Square was eliminated – have won the duPont-Columbia Award for Excellence in Digital and Broadcast Journalism.
Ukrainian radio transmissions, where soldiers complained of a lack of supplies and faulty equipment, were verified and enlivened with video and eyewitness accounts from the city where they operated.
At one point, what appears to be a Ukrainian intruder bursts in.
“Go home,” he advised in Russian. “Better to be a deserter than fertilizer.”
The Times’ Visual Forensics Unit, founded in 2017 and now with 17 staff, “is absolutely one of the most exciting areas of growth we have,” said Joe Kahn, new editor-in-chief.
The work is meticulous. ‘Day of Rage’ is comprised mostly of videos shot by protesters themselves, in the heady days before they realized posting them online might get them in trouble, as well as material from law enforcement and journalists. It specifically describes how the attack started, who the ringleaders were, and how people were killed.
Video research also contradicted an early Pentagon story about a US drone strike that killed civilians in Afghanistan last year. “In looking to us for their protection, they have instead become one of the last victims of America’s longest war,” the report said.
“There’s just this overwhelming amount of evidence on the open web that if you know how to turn over the rocks and uncover this information, you can connect the dots between all these factoids to get to the indisputable truth around an event,” said said Malachy Browne, senior story producer on the Times team.
“Day of Rage” has been viewed almost 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 story about George Floyd’s final moments has garnered nearly 6.5 million views.
The Post team is a result of efforts undertaken in 2019 to verify the authenticity of potentially newsworthy videos. There are many ways to remove fakes, including looking at shadows to determine if the apparent time of day in the video matches when the activity supposedly captured actually took place.
“The Post has seen the kind of impact this type of storytelling can have,” said Nadine Ajaka, head of its visual forensics team. “It’s another tool in our reporting mechanisms. It’s really nice because it’s transparent. It allows readers to understand what we know and what we don’t know, showing it clearly.
Still new, open source storytelling is not bound by rules that govern the length or form of the story. A video can last a few minutes or, in the case of “Day of Rage”, 40 minutes. Work can be self-contained or embedded in text stories. These can be surveys or experiments; The Times used security and cellphone videos, as well as interviews, to tell the story of a Ukrainian building during the Russian invasion.
Leaders in the field cite the work of the website Storyful, which bills itself as a social media intelligence agency, and Bellingcat as pioneers. Bellingcat, an investigative news site, and its head, Eliot Higgins, are best known for covering the Syrian civil war and investigating alleged Russian involvement in the downing of a Malaysian Airlines flight in over Ukraine in 2014.
The Arab Spring of the early 2010s was another key moment. Many protests were coordinated in a digital space, and journalists who could navigate it had access to a world of information, said Alexa Koenig, executive director of the University of California Human Rights Center at Berkeley Law School. .
The commercial availability of satellite images was also a benchmark. The Times used satellite images to quickly refute Russian claims that atrocities in Ukraine were staged.
Other technologies, including artificial intelligence, help journalists who are looking for information about how something happened when they couldn’t be on the scene. The Times in 2018 worked with a London firm to artificially reconstruct a building in Syria that helped contradict official denials of the use of chemical weapons.
Similarly, The Associated Press built a 3D model of a theater in Mariupol bombed by the Russians and, combining it with video and interviews with survivors, produced an investigative report which concluded that more than people had died there than previously thought.
AP also worked with Koenig’s team on an investigation into the terrorist tactics of Myanmar’s military leadership and used modeling for an examination of the war toll in a Gaza neighborhood. It is working with PBS’s Frontline to gather evidence of war crimes in Ukraine and is also looking to expand its digital efforts. Experts cite the BBC’s Africa Eye as another notable effort in the field.
As efforts grow, Koenig said journalists need to ensure their stories drive the tools used, not the other way around. She now regularly hears from news outlets looking to set up their own investigative units and need her advice – or students. Berkeley graduate Haley Willis is part of the Times staff.
It seems, Koenig said, that a major shift has happened over the past year.
Browne said the goal of her unit’s reporting is to create stories with impact that touch on larger truths. An investigation into a Palestinian doctor shot dead by an Israeli soldier in the Gaza Strip was as much about the conflict in general as his death, for example.
“We have similar mandates,” Ajaka said of the Post, “which is to help make sense of some of the most pressing news of the day.”