Innovative storytelling for war coverage

Conversations with Data: #93

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Since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine War, journalists have tried to inform people about the region's geography and historical context, along with the latest developments in the field. Though audiences have shown deep concern for the war, its implications and civilians impacted by the invasion, interest has begun to wane. So how can journalists use this moment to spur innovation, fight war fatigue amongst readers and bring about new forms of storytelling? 

To explore this topic further, we sat down with Gianluca Mezzofiore from CNN and Sam Joiner from The Financial Times. We explore how newsrooms innovate and develop fresh visual storytelling in their war reporting through their expertise. 

This conversation is an edited recording from our event in June 2022. Listen to the podcast on Spotify, SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts. Alternatively, read the edited Q&A with Gianluca Mezzofiore and Sam Joiner below. 

CNN has a long track record of war reporting. How is this conflict different from others the network has covered?

Gianluca: As you said, CNN has a long track record of war reporting. The network has been covering wars for decades. As digital investigators, we stand on the shoulders of some great war reporters. CNN's mission is to "Go There". It's in our DNA, and the war in Ukraine is no exception. I think the Russian-Ukrainian War has marked a shift.

CNN had a lot of teams on the ground since the beginning of the war, even before the start of the war. There was even a team in Russia, on the border with Ukraine, when the rockets were being fired on February 24th. But with this war, the magnitude of open source videos and images is unprecedented. There's no comparison to Syria. Many people rightly asked why we were seeing so much open source coverage of the war in Ukraine as opposed to Syria. But the reality is we haven't seen that many videos before during the war. This is something experts have noted along with CNN staff internally.  

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How did your open source investigative work evolve when covering this war in Ukraine?

Gianluca: As open source investigators, our work began even before the war. We were examining TikTok videos showing Russian troops amassing on the Ukraine-Russia border. This showed that Russia was serious about the invasion. After the war began, we spent 24/7 verifying and geolocating incidents in videos. We were also debunking false flag operations by Russia to justify the war. The worst of these videos were sabotage and missiles being fired. CNN also had a lot of reporters in different cities of Ukraine. The intelligence we were getting from open source was unimaginable. Open source investigation really helped the network's Ukraine coverage. That marked a significant shift in how we covered this war at CNN.

How has the Ukraine open source investigation work shaped mainstream media?

Gianluca: Before Ukraine, the social discovery work was a side to the key focus of the coverage. It has become the central point for each story coming out of Ukraine. This war changed the attitude of heritage media in covering the war. Almost every news organisation has to deal with open source and this kind of coverage. For open source investigators, this work is nothing new. For instance, organisations like Bellingcat have been doing this since 2016.

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What challenges did you encounter at The Financial Times when this war first broke out?

Sam: The rolling nature of the conflict doesn't lend itself to the kind of visual journalism we would like to produce. We usually spend a week to two weeks turning pieces around; sometimes, it can be significantly longer. My initial challenge was trying to work out how we would contribute to The Financial Times' coverage of it. We usually rely on maps to base our reporting on those immediate day-to-day ways of telling a war and visually communicating what's happening. My challenge was to think about how we could tap into it and tell a bigger story within the rolling conflict. And initially, that wasn't easy. But the longer the war went on, I started listening to more people talk about the second phase of the conflict and the fact that Putin's initial plan had failed. That allowed us to assess what we called phase one of the war. We had to deliver that story quite quickly and published a piece focusing on part one of the war within two weeks.

Could you talk to us more about the Financial Times story focusing on the first phase of the war?

Sam: The story aimed to explain visually how Russia's mistakes in Ukraine, alongside the Ukrainian resistance, contributed to the war stalling. We published this about three weeks into the conflict when it became clear that Putin's approach and attempt to take Kyiv had not worked. We based the whole story on a map. Our readers' understanding of Ukraine and its geography wasn't great then, but it developed as the conflict unfolded.

The piece takes readers in and shows the territorial gains made by the Russians. We show that they were targeting densely populated areas. We also show the vital urban regions targeted around Ukraine at the start of the war. In addition, we also did open source investigation work to show footage from the ground. The piece's overall narrative focused on this first part of the war and showed how the Ukrainian resistance and Russia's mistakes had completely changed the course of the war. And it wasn't the war that many thought would unfold. We interviewed many military analysts, former four-star NATO generals, and people on the ground to explain what was happening. 

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How do you innovate with your storytelling when covering such sensitive topics? 

Gianluca: As Sam noted, the rolling nature of the conflict made it quite hard to innovate. Before Ukraine, I worked on a lot of long-term projects that spanned one to two months that were quite a high production value. For instance, I worked on investigating the conflict in Ethiopia. However, our Ukraine coverage has been quite compressed. For example, for the Mariupol maternity hospital attack piece, we worked with Forensic Architecture for one week, night and day. This is an example of what you can achieve in a short amount of time. 

Sam: Our work involves trying to apply visual storytelling techniques to what is the live and current story. Our visual storytelling team has been in existence for less than a year. That meant this was an opportunity to apply these techniques to the biggest story of the moment. Often visual storytelling teams are great at telling the story you aren't expecting to read. Still, when something of this magnitude happens, you're suddenly thrust into the limelight, and you're able to use visuals to tell stories in ways that are the biggest stories. For instance, this piece on Russia's mistakes was one of the most read stories of the year for the Financial Times. 

Due to the graphic nature of some of the visuals presented in our work, we decided to introduce a "highly sensitive toggle option" at the FT. This toggle option allows readers to see still images instead of the full video content. 

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What are the best practices that you follow within your team? 

Gianluca: When you have a fast-moving breaking news story like this, you are tempted to deliver quickly and maybe cut corners. However, I'm pretty rigorous with our team about verification. We need to verify the facts and ensure this video is located where it says it is. The amount of misinformation on this war is absolutely staggering. On both sides of the conflict, we continue to see a lot of claims and propaganda. It doesn't matter who the source is. What matters is the metadata.

Secondly, it is essential to communicate what OSINT is to people unfamiliar with this reporting. You need to be fair and kind and explain how this can contribute to incredible reporting. It's also important to emphasise how this kind of intel can help journalists on the ground and further their reporting in the field. 

Sam: From my perspective, dividing the work and having specific roles on a project helps. If you give people specific tasks they need to focus on, you don't make mistakes or cut out the chance of making them. The best practice is to speak to experts. So we're experts in the OSINT techniques, but not actually in the subject. And speaking to experts is vital. You need to talk to them all the time and then speak to them again. And people are keen to help. You don't have to know everything.

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Finally, what OSINT or visual tools do you recommend? 

Gianluca: I recommend Bellingcat's recently updated spreadsheet that lists many open source tools. First Draft (now the Information Futures Lab) also has two toolkits -- one is a basic beginner's guide to open source intelligence, and the other is more advanced. I would also recommend Benjamin Strick's YouTube playlist of geolocation and OSINT tutorials.

Sam: Mapbox has been useful for us. It's a brilliant tool for intuitive mapping and works brilliantly across devices. It's very smooth, powerful and very customisable. Figma is a design tool we use a lot at the FT. You can storyboard what you want to do. This is very helpful when figuring out what story you want to tell. 

The critical reporting techniques you need for this visual storytelling are not that dissimilar to the ones you need for great reporting. Visuals can't carry the content alone. The content has to be good enough on its own, and you have to do the reporting. Make sure you are speaking to the right people for the story you are trying to tell.

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