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These Reporters Rely on Public Data, Rather Than Secret Sources

LONDON — Leaked documents and interviews with whistle-blowing sources will always be a part of investigative journalism. But thanks to the rise of digital technology, and the easy availability of data that has gone with it, reporters have more ways to get stories than ever before.

“You can be on your couch in front of your computer and solve a mystery of a missile system downing a plane,” said Aliaume Leroy, a journalist who is part of the BBC’s Africa Eye team.

Internet sleuths who piece together stories from available data, a practice known as open-source journalism, have helped identify the white nationalists who assaulted counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va.; unmask the Russian intelligence officers who the British government said tried to kill a fellow Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury, England; and show that the suspects in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul included associates of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince.

With its emphasis on raw facts, open-source journalism has an immediacy that is effective at a time when readers all along the ideological spectrum have become skeptical of the news media.

“If the BBC tells you they’ve got a source that proves this, the BBC is the middleman and the source is behind it — you can’t see it,” Mr. Leroy said. “But if you’ve got the visual evidence, there is no middleman. You connect directly to the evidence.”

The craft of building a story on publicly available data was part of journalism in the analog era, but it has come of age in recent years, with the ubiquity of smartphones and the expansion of social media.

The blogger Eliot Higgins made waves early in the decade by covering the war in Syria from a laptop in his apartment in Leicester, England, while caring for his infant daughter. In 2014, he founded Bellingcat, an open-source news outlet that has grown to include roughly a dozen staff members, with an office in The Hague. Mr. Higgins attributed his skill not to any special knowledge of international conflicts or digital data, but to the hours he had spent playing video games, which, he said, gave him the idea that any mystery can be cracked.

“It’s imagination and perseverance,” he said. “You look at a problem and say, ‘I know I need to do this thing. I know I have this range of tools I can apply to this.’”

Thanks to social media and camera-equipped smartphones, a great number of the world’s seven billion people cannot help documenting newsworthy events. Open-source journalists at Bellingcat and elsewhere try to track down that evidence and place it in context.

“It’s what humans do,” said Nick Waters, a Bellingcat investigator. “They are gregarious. They are addicted to social media, because social media platforms are designed to be addictive. And they like sharing their experiences.”

The site made a name for itself with its investigation of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014, when the war between Russia-backed separatists and the Ukraine government was raging.

At the time, Bellingcat was a group of volunteers who collaborated mainly over a Slack channel. Relying on photographs of the crash site and Facebook updates, they identified the launcher used in the attack, reporting that it had been moved from Russia to rebel-held territory in Ukraine days before the missile was fired, killing all 298 passengers on board the jet.

In June of this year, a Dutch-led international team of prosecutors indicted three men with ties to Russian military and intelligence agencies in the attack. Moscow has denied any involvement. The site produced a podcast this year detailing the story behind the story.

Hans Pool, a Dutch film director, was inspired to make a documentary about Bellingcat after its reporting on the crash. “It was about a house father in his spare time doing research on the internet,” Mr. Pool said. “I was wondering, ‘What is this?’” His documentary, “Truth in a Post-Truth World,” recently won an International Emmy Award.

Bellingcat alumni, as well as formerly amateur open-source investigators, have found jobs at established news organizations including The New York Times, whose Visual Investigations unit incorporates open-source analysis in its reporting, and the BBC. Open-source analysis also has homes at the University of California, Berkeley, Law School; Amnesty International; the University of London’s Forensic Architecture; and Storyful, a news agency bought by News Corporation in 2013.

Bellingcat journalists have spread the word about their techniques in seminars attended by journalists and law-enforcement officials. Along with grants from groups like the Open Society Foundations, founded by George Soros, the seminars are a significant source of revenue for Bellingcat, a nonprofit organization.

The melding of open-source journalism with more traditional methods can be glimpsed in the work of BBC Africa Eye. “It was obvious in 2011 and 2012 that Eliot Higgins was by some margin ahead of established media organizations in discerning from a distance what was going on in Syria,” said Daniel Adamson, a BBC producer who helped introduce open-source reporting to the unit.

Africa Eye’s 2018 documentary short, “Anatomy of a Killing,” a winner of a Peabody Award, shows how the news unit investigated an atrocity. The group started with a viral video of soldiers shooting two women, a young girl and a baby on a dusty rural path. Tipped by an anonymous source — a favorite tool of the old-school reporter — Africa Eye’s journalists used photos from the satellite imager DigitalGlobe to connect the silhouette of a distant mountain range seen in the video with a region of Cameroon. From there, they nailed down the coordinates to locate the murder site.

They also came up with an estimate of when the crime happened by using Google Earth photographs and treating the soldiers as walking sundials. Further, the soldiers’ weaponry indicated that they were part of Cameroon’s army, and Africa Eye closed in on the shooters’ identities through an overheard nickname and a soldier’s Facebook profile. The seven suspects are now awaiting trial.

Open-source journalism has the same vulnerabilities as traditional journalism. A biased reporter or a reliance on sources with an agenda can lead to skewed stories. Some journalists and activists hostile to what they characterize as Bellingcat’s pro-Western narratives have criticized some of its coverage of the war in Syria.

At issue is an April 7, 2018, attack on Douma, Syria. Bellingcat reported, based on an analysis of six open-source videos, that it was “highly likely” that Douma civilians had died because of chemical weapons. In March, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons reported that there were “reasonable grounds” to say that chemical weapons had been used in the attack.

Critics of Bellingcat have pointed to an email from an investigator with the organization, saying that it raised questions about the findings. WikiLeaks published the email on Nov. 23. In a response, Bellingcat defended its reporting, saying the final report on Douma from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons reflected the concerns of the investigator whose email was published by WikiLeaks.

Open-source journalism often takes the form of the authors showing their work, a transparency that tends to make their brand of journalism more believable. The documentary “Anatomy of a Killing,” for instance, is as much about how the investigators reported on the roadside shootings as the incident itself. The effect is like a magician walking you through each step of a trick.

For champions of open-source journalism, narrative transparency is crucial to the form’s credibility. It has also proved useful when its practitioners are attacked by the governments they investigate.

“I’ve seen some very sane people tell me there weren’t chemical attacks in Syria, in the same way I’ve seen very sane people tell me the Saudis aren’t bombing civilians in Yemen — they’re just bombing military targets,” said Rawan Shaif, who until recently worked on a Bellingcat project tracking Yemen’s civil war. “All you need is that doubt in order for people not to believe facts.”

For her, open-source journalism is an antidote to spin.

“You can show people how much information you know and how you know it,” Ms. Shaif said, “and they can make their own decisions.”

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