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Reporters share how open source data confirms facts

Panelists Marc Lavallee of the Knight Foundation, who served as moderator; Meg Kelly, a senior reporter, Visual Forensics of The Washington Post; Marc Perkins a BBC World Service investigations editor; Haley Willis, a visual investigations reporter at The New York Times and Eoghan Macguire, the lead editor at Bellingcat.

From geolocating civilian casualties in conflict zones to using artificial intelligence to analyze vast amounts of video footage, journalists today have more tools than ever to unearth new information. 

Increasingly, investigators are turning to digital sleuthing techniques to uncover truths that may be buried in the immense amount of information provided by social media and open-source data. 

At the 25th International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ), held April 12-13 at the University of Texas at Austin, a panel of journalists shed light on how Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) and Social Media Intelligence (SOCMINT) are revolutionizing war coverage, investigative reporting, and fact-checking.

Moderated by Marc Lavallee, director of technology product and strategy at the Knight Foundation, the panel featured presentations from journalists who have personal experience using these new strategies including Meg Kelly from The Washington Post’s Visual Forensics team and Haley Willis, a visual investigations reporter at The New York Times.

One of the key takeaways from the panel was the evolution of these new intelligence techniques over the past decade. 

“So many of the techniques of journalism go to a situation kind of as it is unfolding, or maybe after it happened, using techniques to understand what did happen and to be able to report that out,” Lavalee said. “In this era, when most of the people of the planet have a camera, where satellites are tracking every move globally, there’s so much more of an opportunity to actually take that information.” 

At the same time, all panelists emphasized the importance of verification when approaching this new abundance of content. While new technology offers unprecedented access to information, it also requires careful authentication and collaboration to ensure accuracy.

For example, facts are verified through techniques like “geolocating” and “chronolocating” information, which means to prove that an event took place at a particular location and time, said Eoghan Macguire, lead editor at the Netherlands-based Open-Source Intelligence group Bellingcat. 

Remote and open-source methods like geolocating and chronolocating can be used across a variety of scales.

“The same techniques and the same methods that we’ve used via our community—either geolocation or chronolocation—can also be used for lots of other investigations. Doesn’t have to be always international or war-type incidents,” Macguire said. 

“Local reporting as well and regional reporting, national reporting: the same techniques are useful,” he said.

The journalists also showcased real-world examples where these new techniques played a crucial role in uncovering new information in conflict zones. Willis’s presentation discussed a video taken in Bucha, Ukraine around early April 2022 that showed some vehicles driving and what appear to be bodies of people lying on the street. 

According to Willis, a combination of “in-the-field work” and remote geolocation by journalists allowed the visual investigations team at The New York Times to identify who the people killed in Bucha were. 

“I think that really speaks to the power of combining different types of reporting,” said Willis. “We would never have been able to do these two larger investigations without having people in the field to collect the visual evidence, to interview people. Especially identifying who these people were was extremely key to the work that we did.”

As a result, working with various types of sources to establish what a visual investigations team knows about an event is typically an important part of Willis’ work.

In other cases, fieldwork is impossible. Willis also talked about her experience working remotely to report on what is happening in regions of conflict in Gaza.

“In this case, we did not have the option of fieldwork,” Willis said. 

In October, a strike on a refugee camp in northern Gaza called Jabaliya killed many people. Using visual evidence, Willis’ team was able to determine that 2,000-pound bombs had been used in densely populated areas. They trained an AI model to search satellite imagery for craters created by bombs, then manually checked their findings with munitions experts.   

When the open-source satellite imagery of bombing sites was combined with social media information, they were able to get a better sense of “the broad scale at which south Gaza was still being bombed after these evacuation orders” and “zoom in on every single one of these points, to what does that mean for the people there, and give the human aspect” of people’s experience in Gaza “to the extent that we can,” said Willis. 

OSINT and SOCMINT’s use in coverage of both the Russia-Ukraine war and the Israel-Hamas war “is a great segue to the repeatability of some of these techniques and tool-building as well,” Lavallee said, transitioning to the next presentation.

Kelly similarly stressed these techniques can be applied to a broad spectrum of stories and subjects.

“One thing I always like to stress about this work is that we often use examples that are sort of big and splashy, but it really can cover all types of different subject-matter,” said Kelly.

Using visual research and open-source techniques has the potential to lead to new insights and resources for any story. Kelly’s past work has used 3-D modeling and audio analysis to “fill in holes” in what she was reporting. 

All of the techniques she used for a recent story she worked on were totally free, she said. 

“There was nothing fancy or high-tech about it, but I think it was a great, really amazing example of how to report remotely,” Kelly said. “Especially in places where, as we all know as journalists, it can be really tricky to get to.”

OSINT and SOCMINT techniques can be used by anyone, equipping journalists with a means to more accurately scrutinize, verify, and report on complex events.

Annamika Konkola is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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