On December 7, Nieman Reports published a comprehensive piece on the concept of open-source investigations (OSI). Maxim Edwards, the writer of the piece, began by clarifying that OSI is not simply information obtained through social media, but rather “any information that can be publicly accessed by others, including but not limited to online sources.”
Essentially, public information sources including local newspapers, satellite imagery on Google Earth, and images shared on TripAdvisor are fair game. “What it doesn’t include,” explained Edwards, “are two mainstays of traditional investigative journalism — non-public document leaks or closed-source reporting, otherwise known as shoe-leather reporting and interviews.”
The comprehensive article went on to detail how OSI has become more integrated into modern journalistic practice as a standard reporting technique.
“Over the past few years, newsrooms have started integrating open-source methods into their coverage and building their own OSI teams. That’s in part to verify social media posts, and in part to report on places where it is simply too dangerous for journalists to venture — areas on or behind the frontlines — where open-source imagery allows a glimpse into military movements and potential war crimes.”
Edwards conjectured that the increased usage of open-source investigations over closed-source investigations may be due to a shift in the generational ratio; younger journalists have grown up with the Internet and its publicly available information at their fingertips.
With increased availability and diversity of open sources, several newsrooms now have dedicated open-source teams, “like The New York Times’ visual investigations unit, which in April used satellite imagery to debunk Moscow’s claims that bodies had been placed on the streets of Bucha after Russian troops had withdrawn from the Ukrainian town.”
However, Edwards warned that “open-source sleuthing will not — and should not — fully replace traditional reporting. In fact, some of the finest investigative journalism on Russia’s invasion has come from the union of the two genres.”