Hello again, all! I’m back with our second interview of In Sync. If you haven’t read our first edition yet, check it out here.
Our guest this month is Malachy Browne, a senior producer with the New York Times’s visual investigations team. The New York Times was one of the first big newsrooms to launch a video format that combined traditional reporting with advanced digital forensics. Malachy has been instrumental in shaping this format and in creating something that’s so different from mainstream digital video in the news industry.
I learned so much in this one conversation with Malachy and I hope everyone reading this will enjoy it as much as I did. Let’s jump right in!
Nikita: Hi, Malachy! Thanks for talking to us. Can you tell me a little bit about your background? How did you get into video journalism?
Malachy: By accident, really. My background is in computer programming and after doing that for about eight years, I took a master's in international studies and found my way into working for an art and current affairs magazine. They needed the website and I needed experience in journalism. I was doing everything there — from reporting to copy editing to laying up the magazine and photo-editing. On the digital side of things, it all started when I took a job with Storyful, which is a social media news agency. That was my first foray into social journalism and that's where I started using social media to identify stories, to develop them, to find sources. And in between Storyful and the New York Times, I worked at a small outlet called Reportedly where we did the same, but we also did more deeper investigations using Open Source data. Then I got an opportunity to work at the New York Times video department and I started bringing some of the open source practices into video production. About a year into that, we started with what has become the visual investigations team.
Nikita: I would love to understand more about the origin of the visual investigations format. How did it come about?
Malachy: The beginning of that idea was that, while we were doing news stories that leveraged online open source information and social media, there was a major opportunity for us to delve deeper into newsworthy events that were happening around the world and using all sorts of data, including satellite imagery, police scanner audio, eye witness footage, security camera footage. We were really looking into how best to investigate events visually and piece them together, moment by moment, to show precisely what happened if there were doubts about a chaotic event. Or, if there were authorities who were misinforming the public or lying about their responsibilities in human rights abuse, we’d be able to show what happened within these high profile events. It really all started with a strategy document, and a proof of concept on a couple of stories followed, and here we are today.
Nikita: For people who've never watched any video from the visual investigations team, how would you describe the format?
Malachy: I would describe it as using audio-visual evidence and spatial and temporal evidence to reconstruct events that are of news importance. It is very evidence based. When we find a video on Twitter or on YouTube, we don't just take that video. We want to find the person who filmed it and get the original video from their device so that we have metadata and other information that's embedded in it. This allows us to pair that information up with police scanner audio or a military pilot’s radio transmissions to layer evidence in a way that shows quite conclusively how something unfolded or what exactly happened.
Nikita: Is there any filming involved for a video of this kind?
Malachy: Yes, sometimes there is. It's really combining the audio-visual evidence and that type of digital forensics with traditional reporting with interviews of witnesses; we’re going to the scene when we can and where it makes sense, and combining that with all kinds of other types of reporting, company information, bills of lading if there’s shipping involved, plane trackers, weapons contracts with governments, etcetera. There’s a host of information that's out there.
Nikita: You've talked a little bit about the process already but let’s go into a little more detail here. One of the most impressive visual investigations for me is the one about Breonna Taylor’s death. It’s also different from a lot of the other visual investigations videos and uses a 3D model to explain what really happened in her case.
Malachy: There was clear value in trying to visually establish what exactly happened that night, because the police didn't use body cameras. We knew that there was crime scene evidence that was recorded, but we didn't have access to it. However, a source close to the information gave us access to all the crime scene photographs and videos that were recorded by the body cameras of the Swat team afterwards. When I first saw those photographs, I was shocked by the amount of gunfire into the small apartment and the bullets that smashed everyday household items; they penetrated almost every room in the house. I thought that we would be able to reconstruct the police's movements, using the bullet trajectories because they penetrated walls and went into another wall behind it, or went through a window and so on, so forth. Therefore, we could draw lines back to where those bullets came from.
We also obtained video depositions of the police, some of them immediately afterwards and some of them in the days and weeks afterwards, and we also obtained video depositions of the surviving witness, Kenneth Walker, Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend. All of that allowed us to, in my mind, visualize what happened, what went wrong, and the failings of the police as they carried out this raid and how they prepared for the raid too.
We teamed up with Anjali Singhvi, who's a brilliant graphics reporter trained as an architect. Anjali took the photographs and videos that we had, and also referenced 3D tours and video tours of similar apartments of the same dimension in the apartment block that Breonna lived in. She also looked at floor plans to sketch out an identical model of Breonna Taylor’s apartment. Then, it’s literally about inserting the photographs into that model so that we could mark out where each bullet hole was. It was really laborious work — and very, very precise in the final product.
Nikita: Your team does global investigations as well. There’s one that is about the chemical attack in Syria that comes to mind for me.. Living in India, I see how difficult it can be to get access to many of the elements that were so integral to the Breonna Taylor piece — SWAT team footage and a lot of the other crime scene evidence. How difficult is it to get access to sensitive information when you're working on global investigations?
Malachy: Great question! So, in the case of Breonna Taylor’s death, eventually, due to public pressure, all of the crime scene evidence and the other evidence that was logged in through various public investigations was released by the authorities in Kentucky. But we got access to them even before that, which gave us a head start. Somebody close to the investigation must have felt unhappy about how the evidence was being used or interpreted.
In international stories, a variety of factors can come into play. We're very often relying on eyewitnesses and what they're filming and uploading to social media. In some places, there are more witnesses who are afraid to post information on social media or publicly. So, going directly to the scene and finding witnesses pays dividends because you'll find way more photographs and videos that are on their phones, or they’ll have a friend or a relative who is also a witness and they can help connect the dots. We've done that in Nigeria, in Gaza. Going to the scene can often be beneficial.
When there is a paucity of evidence, we just try to find other ways around it — perhaps by using satellite imagery, especially if you know that it’s an urban environment and there is security camera footage. You want to get out onto the street, as soon as you can afterwards, and go door-to-door and try to collect information. And you can use FOIA as well in some countries to have information released. It's a mixture of all of those things — sources and FOIA and scouring social media and just thinking of other ways that you can visualize it.
We have access to some satellite imagery platforms that are uploading daily imagery but there’s also an array of public satellite imagery sources as well. Benjamin Strick has a very good class on YouTube that shows all of the free satellite imagery tools that are out there and how to use them.
Nikita: That’s a great tip. Now, let’s talk about what are some of the key things you consider when you're trying to find a topic for your next investigation.
Malachy: Obviously, the topic needs to have some journalistic or news angle. Is there an event that has been explained away by government or authority in a way that just seems a little bit fishy, or seems a bit off, and it warrants deeper investigation? If the answer to that is yes, the next question for us is: can we find visual or audio evidence pertaining to the event that captures it or that allows us to reconstruct it? Will whatever we do on this be an original take? Will it be revealing? Does it advance journalism? Does it advance what's known about it? Will we arrive at an indisputable truth about this event that calls bullshit on government lies? Or, is this an event that is just so chaotic that there’s merit in just slowing it down and providing a more complete understanding of what happened, and how it happened, and why it happened?
Another circumstance we’ll dive into is when a drip feed of evidence is emerging slowly over time, creating incremental reveals, and a producer or director can combine that evidence with other reporting to present a more complete picture of an event. That's what we did in our video about the killing of journalist and activist Jamal Khashoggi as Turkish authorities gave a drip feed of evidence to keep the story alive.
Then, we decide what form the story is going to take. Is it going to be a visually led interactive piece or is it going to be a linear video? Or would it be a series of linear videos? Some of that will depend on the urgency of the piece, as it's much faster to produce an interactive video with annotated clips than to produce a full-on video with motion graphics and scripts..
Nikita: So our readers can have an understanding of the time it takes to work on a video of this kind, how long did it take to produce the Breonna Taylor video?
Malachy: It took four of us about three months. I think I started mid-September and we published on December 29.
Nikita: Have there been any stories that your team has started working on and then had to drop or pause? Does that happen often?
Malachy: That’s happened several times, much to our frustration, and for a variety of reasons. Either we're not finding anything that advances the story enough. We usually have a good sense of that in the prospecting phase before we agree on greenlighting a story. Other times, we might invest time in the story and actually produce and interview people, and the news interrupts the production and other priorities come along. We try to identify stories that are doable within a reasonable time frame.
In the case of Breonna Taylor, it was nine months after she was killed and three months after we got access to the evidence that we were able to publish the piece. There wasn't anything that was massively revealing in a traditional journalistic sense, but what was revealing was seeing all of the evidence and what happened that night in an entirely different way; this is what gave us an indelible view of how the events went so wrong.
The same is true of our project on January 6 and the capital riots – six months after the event. But this is such a visual story — a raw and unfiltered view into the mindset and motivations of participants that day — that it was worth reconstructing.
Nikita: Who's your target audience for all these visual investigation pieces?
Malachy: We don't have a target audience in mind. However, we love YouTube as a platform, and we find that we have very different audiences on different platforms. We aim to produce strong, visually-compelling stories that have journalistic merit and that people will be interested in.. All of our work is outside of the paywall at the New York Times. So, on the New York Times website, we have one particular audience which is probably older and a more American audience. On YouTube, we have a much younger audience that is far more international. So you get different responses from different audiences. On Twitter and on Instagram we have different audiences as well.
Nikita: How do you measure success for this format? Is there a specific video that you’d say has been the most successful in that way?
Malachy: It’s hard to say. A video is successful if we have exposed new information that we feel is important to a story. For example, we did a short video on the killing of Ahmaud Arbery – and the main reveal of that story was that he was pursued by three men and two trucks for several minutes before one of them shot and killed him. And that was important context for the murder trial. It was done just by hearing 911 calls with video evidence of what happened and matching it with timestamps. But it allowed us to retrace his movement and movements of the accused. So, for us, that’s success: being able to contribute to that story. Of course, there are other measures of success in terms of viewership but ultimately, it’s about impact — such as authorities using the information we publish to advance justice.
In Philadelphia, our team produced a piece about how the police misused tear gas and fired it at protesters. On the day that story was produced, the police chief called a press conference and they banned the use of tear gas and they demoted senior police officials. We did a piece about bombs that were being produced in Italy and exported to Saudi Arabia and being used to attack civilians in Yemen. Italy later stopped exporting those weapons to Saudi Arabia and that's a measurable impact. The Russia tape series that we did was cited in a UN report and also the Security Council. That's really the type of journalistic impact that we seek from these projects.
Nikita: All of this sounds so powerful. I’m sure it’s such fulfilling work. Is there a particular aspect that’s most exciting about working in this format? What’s most difficult?
Malachy: The most exciting thing for me is how accessible this format is and how other newsrooms have taken it on and are using similar practices. That's really great to see.
There’s a generation of journalists who are now being trained in this genre of storytelling. It's good old-fashioned journalism, but it can be applied to new forms of information and, therefore, it can be used in breaking news, in features, and news investigations, but also for justice and accountability mechanisms outside of the news industry. Then, there's the adrenaline of any sort of production, the enjoyment that you get working with colleagues towards a shared goal of producing a good piece of journalism.
The most difficult part of this is not having enough time. There are so many stories to pursue. In terms of the stories themselves, this is a very evidence-heavy, technical type of reporting that doesn't naturally lend itself to a compelling story. That is a challenge in every piece that we undertake. How do we use this really valuable evidence in a compelling way that holds the viewer when they are bombarded with information from newsrooms and social media? Weaving all of the evidence that we collect into an engaging and easy to follow story, and deciding what to leave out — because we leave so much on the cutting room floor on every single project. Another difficulty is when and how to use witnesses, because this is very different to field reporting and more traditional, character-led reporting. We're trying to do more of that.
Nikita: These visual investigations are so powerful, these topics so significant, and they take months, which means that the team working on these also feels really emotionally invested in these topics. How difficult is it to detach yourself from these stories? Does it have an effect on your mental health?
Malachy: Secondary trauma is a known result of spending hours upon hours looking over violent content and our team has experienced it. You're seeing some of the worst possible things that you can imagine. And sometimes you're watching it repeatedly because you need to analyze that footage.
Our team members have had to watch, over and over again, footage of the victims of chemical weapons attacks or children who've been caught up in the air strikes and police shootings in the US, which is right on our doorstep, which is much closer to home for the American members of our staff. So, you're right.
One of the most important things as a team is to be aware of that and to talk about it openly with your colleagues, and if you're not okay looking at something. If you need a break, asking if somebody else can take it on or asking for help, or speaking to a manager. It’s something we also think about when we present these visuals to our audience. There are times when we feel it needs to be seen, to show how egregious an act by an authority is. But we also don't want to use graphic content in a gratuitous way. We try to focus in on the details and sometimes we obscure a lot of the frame just to focus in on a piece of evidence, of answers analyzed by a pathologist or a chemical weapons expert. So that's what we try to do. We probably don't always get it right.
Getting back to our own team, we've had professional experts address the team and there are professional resources made available to the team as well. So, all of that is helpful.
Nikita: If there's one thing you had to pick that you've made that's the closest to your heart, which one would it be?
Malachy: Can I pick three?
Nikita: Of course.
Malachy: I think the Russia tape series is very good, and our piece on Rouzan al-Najjar because it really combined on-the-ground field reporting with the forensic evidence. It was such a loss to the community, and the way in which she was vilified by Israeli Defense forces after her killing as well. Also, getting to the bottom of what happened in Breonna Taylor’s killing where there was no video evidence of it and we were able to answer what happened visually. I was glad we achieved what we set out to do in that piece.
Nikita: Now, if you had to give one piece of advice to people making nonfiction videos with an investigative bent, what would that be?
Malachy: Don't be limited by any one sort of format or source of information. There's an abundance of information out there. Find the people who can leverage it or teach yourself how to unearth it and use it for your investigations. Demand time from your editors. There have been projects where it's been slow-going for us but the extra time made all of the difference. Find good collaborators. Video journalism, in particular, is all about good collaboration.
Nikita: If you had to pick a video that's made by a different publication or a different filmmaker that you think people reading this interview should watch, which one would it be?
Killing Pavel, by the OCCRP and its Ukrainian partner, Slidstvo.Info. Not for its production qualities, but for the speedy collection and analysis of visual evidence that led the investigators to suspects in the 2016 killing of journalist Pavel Sheremet. It's very much in the VI mode.
Also, for a topical documentary series, Turning Point on Netflix is a good accounting of the decisions taken post 9/11 and the disastrous war in Afghanistan, especially the final two episodes.
Malachy's Music Picks:
My music diet these days is definitely more evening time chill out radio than dance club beats!
To everyone reading, I’m watching Turning Point these days. I highly recommend it too!
And, of course, here’s what the In Sync team — and our interviewees — are listening to.
Of Note: The Visual Investigation team’s film Day of Rage was recently nominated by the Critics Choice Awards and shortlisted by the International Documentary Association awards for the Best Short Documentary.
Thanks for reading. Please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions about who we should interview next as well as any suggestions to make this newsletter more useful (or to, just, say hello)!