NEW YORK – One of the more striking pieces of journalism from the Ukraine war featured intercepted radio transmissions from Russian soldiers indicating an invasion in disarray, their conversations even interrupted by a hacker literally whistling “Dixie.”
It was the work of an investigations unit at The New York Times that specializes in open-source reporting, using publicly available material like satellite images, mobile phone or security camera recordings, geolocation and other internet tools to tell stories.
The field is in its infancy but rapidly catching on. The Washington Post announced last month it was adding six people to its video forensics team, doubling its size. The University of California at Berkeley last fall became the first college 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 Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot and the Post’s look at how a 2020 racial protest in Washington’s Lafayette Square was cleared out — won duPont-Columbia awards for excellence in digital and broadcast journalism.
The Ukraine radio transmissions, where soldiers complained about a lack of supplies and faulty equipment, were verified and brought to life with video and eyewitness reports from the town where they were operating.
At one point, what appears to be a Ukrainian interloper breaks in.
“Go home,” he advised in Russian. “It’s better to be a deserter than fertilizer.”
The Times’ visual investigations unit, founded in 2017 and now numbering 17 staff members, “is absolutely one of the most exciting areas of growth that we have,” said Joe Kahn, incoming executive editor.
The work is meticulous. “Day of Rage” is composed mostly of video shot by protesters themselves, in the heady days before they realized posting them online could get them into trouble, along with material from law enforcement and journalists. It outlines specifically how the attack began, who the ringleaders were and how people were killed.
Video sleuthing also contradicted an initial Pentagon story about an American drone strike that killed civilians in Afghanistan last…