“The audience is seeing the evidence for themselves”
Every single one of their investigations is a sensation. The New York Times' Visual Investigations team specializes in fact-checking using open source data available on the Web. Created in 2017, the team has already won a Pulitzer Prize in 2020. Malachy Brown, Senior Producer of Visual Investigations at the NYT, gave Story Jungle a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how their investigations are put together and some good advice for anyone keen to get into visual investigations themselves.
How would you define Visual Investigations?
Senior Producer, Visual Investigations at The New York Times.
We are very interested in understanding the behind the scene context: how does your team work?The team is a combination of open-source reporters. They find evidence and sources and combine them all together in a spreadsheet, standard data reporting. Open-source reporters as well as story producers, reporters and producers are often interchanged, they are the same people. Then we have video editors and animators and motion graphics editors. All the other support that a newsroom gives you like, copy editors and audience experts and strategists and that kind of stuff. It is a really diverse team, in terms of skills, but the reporting is rooted in the open-source visual reporting. That is how it works. Our team is about 17 people. We will soon make an announcement about a new person who is going to join us.
We are from a variety of backgrounds and countries, from China, Germany, Holland, Austria Ireland, America, The Netherlands, Ukraine – it is really a mixed team.
The investigation about the Beirut explosion was amazing in terms of production, motion design, and new technologies. What is the process from start to end? How do you pick the right topics?
That [example] is interesting because that one was a combination of some of our team but it was mainly driven by the graphics team. So, there is a separate team. There is a whole other graphics unit in the New York Times – we sit opposite each other when we are in the office. That one was not really led by our team. That was a combination of some of our team, the international desk who had reporters in Beirut, and the graphics team who analysed the videos and created a sort of a 3D model and they have expertise in doing that. That was really trying to investigate how did it start, how did it spread, what was the history of the chemicals that exploded, and it combined underground reporting with visual analysis. Typically with a story, what we will do is we will get and organise all of the audiovisual materials around an incident and timeline it out. When certain things happen, what was the sequence of events? And we will also spatially organise it. We will organise it in space and sometimes we use Google Earth to do that. It's a free tool and it is really helpful to create a sort of mindmap of where and how things happened and in what order they happened. That can be really revealing when you are trying to tell a story, trying to piece things together. That is a process that we use repeatedly. It could be a spreadsheet but sometimes it is Google Earth.
What would you say is the most difficult part of the investigation process?It depends from story to story. One thing that we often will try to do, when time is really important, is to turn these open sources of video on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, turn those open sources into primary sources who we can interview and who could provide us with the media directly from the device that they used and filmed it on and that is important because it contains metadata. This metadata might have GPS coordinates – the latitude and longitude – but it will often also have the hour, minute and second that a video or a photograph was taken.
That is really important information when you are trying to understand what happened and the sequence of events minute-by-minute. That can be tricky. Sometimes you need to double verify that because a camera setting could be off and so you never rely on just one piece of information, one source of information. It is kind of similar to traditional reporting. Who's your second source? Who's your third source ? We try to layer bits of evidence that corroborate each other before we can say something with confidence. That is the same with something as simple as metadata. You always want to find extra information to validate that. An example of that and why that's important is if you consider the Russia Tapes, a series of investigations we did. That was all about time coded recordings of Russian pilots bombing hospitals and if we could figure out the precise minute the hospital was bombed using photographs and videos, and then check what pilot was bombing at that minute and in what region of Syria they were bombing, then you can tie a specific attack on the hospital to a specific pilot, and that pilot's airforce. So it can be really valuable. It sounds simple and it could be really critical information.
The time you allocated to these two stories was different, so how do you decide how much of your resources you will invest into a subject and how long the investigation should be?That is a great question. The question we always ask ourselves is, 'Is our story going to be visual' – we are first of all a visual reporting team – and secondly, 'Is it going to be revealing? Are we going to advance the story of what is known about this particular story? Is it going to be an original presentation or an original take? Will it have an impact? Is it important information? Would it change the direction of policy? Would it force a government investigation? Is it useful to investigate authorities or the general public? Does it explain a story in a new way that people didn't quite understand before?
They are all factors that we consider when we decide to pursue a story. And you have a very good sense after prospecting it for a little while. We will investigate for a little bit. It is like we are pitching a story to an editor. Here is the evidence, here is how long and so and so.
There was something for us to investigate and then the more we investigated it, the more was revealed and the more we were able to combine different pieces of evidence.
In the Russia Tapes, that took seven months to a year because it was a big topic. It was a difficult story because it was inaccessible to us. We couldn't go there unless there was a ceasefire. We eventually went there, it was such a big story. We had voluminous evidence, we are talking about months and months of pilot recordings, thousands of flight logs, days and days of videos, photographs, satellite images, dozens of attacks on hospitals. So each of those has to be really meticulously investigated. It was a very big systemic issue that was happening in a conflict that seems to appear never-ending.
It was a totally different story. We felt that we had through our reporting and especially when once we got the audiotapes, that we were sitting on really important information to put in the public domain. It was a team of nine people working for months and months, translating, collecting, verifying and synthesising all the evidence together around, every single attack. It was a different type of investigation that required a lot of work and skills.
How do you see the future of visual investigations?
The BBC is doing it, BBC Africa, BBC Arabic. They have some good reporters. The Washington Post has a small team that is dedicated to visual forensics now, so they are starting. Bellingcat in Europe, they focus less on the visual but there are similar types of reporting and approaches, different types of storytelling. You have the Wall Street Journal which is starting to do some of that as is NHK in Japan and there are really good reporters in Le Monde who are starting to do that kind of work as well. It is growing. I expect it will continue to grow because it is a very accessible type of journalism. A lot of the information is on the open web. A lot of the tools to help you with the reporting are free. If you can combine that type of reporting with creative, visual storytellers in a newsroom, then it is possible to do this, definitely. It doesn't require big seven-month-long [investigations] with 10 people. It applies to breaking news as much as it applies to a medium-term or -size investigation, and you can do it as a linear video which takes more production or you can do as an interactive article where you are writing texts to small clips, that have annotations on them. You can let the visual tell the story.
There are different ways for different newsrooms, depending on their resources, to adopt and try this type of journalism.
Would you have any tips for a newsroom which would like to launch an initiative like this?
There are a lot of online resources out there. People should practise this but they also should use the available resources online. I gave you a few websites. One is obviously Bellingcat. The other one is "First Draft news" – there are a lot of case studies, lots of tips. Also the "Verification Handbook", which gives you verification skills. GIJN, The Global Investigative Journalism Network, they have, on their YouTube channel, a lot of recorded sessions. On their website, they have lots of tipsheets, from investigators all over the world.
What are relations like with the print team?It is very good now. We work with the print team very regularly, especially on the big projects that we do, and the print team love having visual materials to work with. And it is a design challenge for them. It is creative for them, a creative outlet. It is totally a different kind of audience. Usually, we publish digitally – that could be a video or an interactive – and then we work with the print team because we are working so hard to get the digital products finished and published and then we have a promotion strategy for all of these.
To learn more about The New York Times' Visual Investigations unit, watch this video of Malachy Browne and the team describing how they work.
Front page photo: Malachy Browne and the Visual Investigations team (2020). Credit: New York Times.