The Washington Post’s pandemic-born visual forensics team is here to stay (and still working remotely)

Credit: Screenshot via The Washington Post Ukrainian Video Database

We all know that misinformation can spread like wildfire online. We also know that video requires a lot of time and patience. What happens when you have to manage both together: cover an urgent story on a time-consuming medium?

The Washington Post started a visual forensics team less than two years ago. This small team born out of the pandemic is now doubling in size, but still working remotely in the United States and abroad.

The team consists of a handful of specialist journalists analyzing and verifying open-source and on-the-ground videos of major news events. He then turns his findings into powerful reconstruction videos to show how complex news moments unfolded, helping readers understand what happened.

He won a duPont award in February last year for a timeline of Trump’s Lafayette Square photoshoot, recognizing “outstanding broadcast journalism in the public interest”. He also pieced together the death of George Floyd, the siege of the US Capitol, and many other pressing stories.

Fast forward two years and the team turned to the situation in Ukraine, checking the “daily fire hose” of content circulating online according to head of visual forensics and executive producer Nadine Ajaka, speaking on a podcast with Journalism.co.uk.

His team has also created a database of verified UGC videos from the Ukrainian War, for both the general public and resource-strapped media to use (with credit).

Verification workshop and production studio

Journalists must move quickly, geotag video and confirm coordinates, and if necessary send visuals to ordnance experts to confirm, deny, or shed new light on a story.

For a remote team, the lack of a physical newsroom poses some limitations, especially when it comes to editing comments. That means there’s a lot of exporting, sharing, editing, and re-exporting. Ajaka says the benefit is high productivity, as dispersed colleagues can be more nimble and responsive to unfolding events.

The team has heavily documented workflows in Slack, Zoom, Adobe Premiere, and Dropbox Paper (a real-time editing tool), so team members can easily jump in.

The specific story workflow tends to vary from story to story. But usually it starts with a basic question: what are the most pressing questions about a particular event and how can visuals help answer them?

Ajaka says that if there are a limited number of hours to focus on, it can really help to make a wide and clean selection of all assets available on social media, official statements and wider sources. The team then sets to work to put everything together.

Since the final video will be a consistent, linear timeline of events, there can be no blind spots. There must be visuals that speak to every element of the story, but the advantage of video is that it can be paused while a narrator delivers a voiceover. The same effect cannot be achieved in text, for example.

Ultimately, visual forensics works best when video can offer a new take or exclusivity on a story and there are scenarios where multiple things need to be shown simultaneously, such as audio recordings (people being interviewed or chatting to police radio), side by side. video footage, and bringing other documents to life (the team digitized reports from firefighters and paramedics). In other words, there’s a lot more to it than just checking the video.

“Sometimes open-source intelligence is portrayed as the most objective form of reporting, or the holy grail in a world where journalists’ confidence in official statements is rightly being reassessed,” says Ajaka.

“At the same time, the work of deciphering these visuals is almost a small part of the whole story. We always have to supplement it with other forms of rigorous reporting, like contacting sources, getting in touch with the forces of the order, get feedback, etc. It’s never just about what the visuals show, it’s a multi-faceted effort.

The bigger picture

There must be a good reason to justify the expansion of the team, right?

Videos are uploaded to both The Washington Post website (behind its paywall) and its YouTube account (where it can be watched for free – and regularly garners millions of views per video).

This is not trivial from a monetization point of view, but Ajaka claims that the channel has encountered issues with demonetization of videos or age restriction due to the nature of the content.

Two million views on a YouTube video means a high percentage of unsubscribers, and she thinks that creates a potential pathway for that to change.

“We always say, ‘You can watch our videos for free on youtube, but please know that the support we receive from subscriptions is what makes the work possible.

“This message we frame around stories and there’s really no limit to the audience you can get on YouTube, and in a very different way from the site.”

The visual forensic team does not have strict goals. But one of the goals of its expansion is to increase production, which is a major priority for the future. This is assessed on a quarterly or yearly basis as different videos require different lengths to put together.

Success is measured by impact, whether it’s the findings aired at Supreme Court hearings or what the comments say on YouTube. Ajaka is currently on maternity leave and has left Elyse Samuels in charge of overseeing production and onboarding new hires.

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