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Video forensic reporting goes mainstream — and local

“The toolkit of social intelligence and listening devices is increasingly accessible for DIY video makers, lean local news departments, and international organizations in countries where press freedoms don’t exist.”

Over the past few years, we’ve seen a surge of video forensic reporting, packaged into groundbreaking storytelling from well-resourced international media outlets, including the stellar BBC reconstruction of a killing in Cameroon, and our Pulitzer-winning video documenting the murder of an Afghan woman falsely accused of burning the Koran. Then there’s the damning video that provides a visual takedown of Saudi’s complicit role in murdering Jamal Khashoggi.

Until now, these investigative and irrefutable visual takedowns were mainly produced by a few pioneering departments within major newsrooms, or by boutique forensic organizations like Bellingcat (which broke the Skripal spy story), Forensic Architecture, Human Rights Watch, Storyful, and Amnesty International. Despite a few of these big hits, the industry has faced several barriers to entry. There simply weren’t many people with the video forensic skillset; the tools were increasingly complex to use and the models for storytelling were not yet numerous. And many of these investigations focused on petty or nuanced cases — such as a granular takedown of the weapons used in a bombing in Yemen — and in turn they often failed to reach mainstream audiences or residents living in places where the crimes occurred.

Enter 2019, when the toolkit of social intelligence and listening devices — from Broadcastify to Investigator — is increasingly accessible for DIY video makers, lean local news departments, and international organizations in countries where press freedoms don’t exist. Visual investigations are suddenly a sexy and common topic at journalism conferences and among a new generation of tech-savvy forensic reporters who are graduating college. To be clear, these investigations are not easy, but they will fan out globally because they’re more affordable than on-the-ground reporting, safer (they can be done by exiled dissidents), and they have a cinematic quality that appeals to popular audiences. Indisputable visual evidence of heinous crimes is accountability at its best. Case in point: Killing Pavel, which documents the murder of Belarusian investigative journalist Pavel Sheremet, who died in a car explosion in Ukraine and who was a critic of authoritarian presidencies in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.

It was only a few years ago that video cameras were first installed into mobile phones, birthing a generation of eyewitness reporters and citizen journalists. Now dozens of digital tools exist for lay people (okay, those with a bit of patience) to comb police scanners, track shipping routes, monitor airplane runways, acquire airport CCTV feeds, verify Instagram video, geofence uploads from a time and place, and use audio and visual forensics to cross-check and confirm, just as a reporter would do on paper in the 1970s. In an era where impunity is an increasing norm, and human rights seem to be falling out of favor, video forensic journalism offers a dose of hope for its potential to go more mainstream and more local.

Adam B. Ellick is the director and executive producer of opinion video at The New York Times.

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