Ten Years Hence 2021 – Visual Investigations: Innovation in Storytelling

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Featured Speakers: 

  • Malachy Browne, Senior Story Producer, New York Times
  • James S. O’Rourke, Teaching Professor of Management, University of Notre Dame

A picture’s worth a thousand words. So goes the old adage, which is as true in the disinformation sphere as it is in any other. Visuals are a uniquely powerful medium to convey information to humans, which makes them a uniquely powerful tool for bad-faith actors out to manipulate the public. As media and journalism shift toward a greater emphasis on visual content, new approaches to storytelling will be essential to ensuring that audiences can still discern truth from falsehood. These innovations in storytelling were the subject of a talk by Malachy Browne, a Senior Story Producer at the New York Times and a winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, in the second lecture of Notre Dame’s 2021’s Ten Years Hence series.

As deep fakes and the state and private actors who propagate them become more and more sophisticated, digital forensics is of growing importance in helping us get at the facts and know what is true. In a series of case studies, Browne walked a group of ND faculty, students, and alumni through how his team uses cutting edge visual technology to build narratives around some of the most consequential stories in the U.S. and the world. The audience was shown a sample of the work that goes into reconstructing, minute by minute, events as varied as the Las Vegas mass shooting, the Louisville police raid that ended in the death of Breonna Taylor, the killing of a medical worker in Gaza, and a chemical weapons attack in Syria that that country’s government attempted to cast doubt on.

Piecing together what happened down to the most minute level in these events is a task involving painstaking detail that can take months at a time. In the process, countless sources are cataloged, consulted, and indexed: Smart phone video and its corresponding metadata, eyewitness accounts, before and after satellite imagery, and law enforcement documentation constitute some, but not all, of the data types that go into these reconstructions and recreations.

Though the process may be time-consuming, the end results of these investigations allow viewers and readers to explore events in ways that were previously not possible. What’s more, they underscore the important role that everyday citizens can play in piecing together a story today. Browne said he viewed the work his team does as in many ways a collaboration with the greater public, one that makes sure that no dimension of a story goes unexplored.

As the disinformation landscape grows increasingly difficult to navigate, investigative journalists will be at the forefront of combating fake news. And as they undertake this important work, what they produce will become more and more bound up with the brand of the outlet they work for. “Investigative journalism builds the reputation of a [news] institution,” Browne explained toward the end of his talk. “You’re investing in the reporters who can find the goods and important stories that will have impact, societal impact, and change policy for the better.”

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  • “The foundational basis in fact upon which debates are held and policy discussions are teased out and debated, even in presidential campaigns and political campaigns, has eroded.” (Malachy Browne 4:10)
  • The unprecedented amount of information produced and recorded by satellites, smart phones, and data-tracking devices of every kind now provide an unprecedented opportunity to get at the truth of events in a robustly detailed manner (07:25).
  • Social media companies’ incentive to keep a user on their platform as long as possible combined with their psychographic profiles of users make for a dangerous combination. (12:15)
  • The best and most thorough visual investigative journalism will always involve collaboration with sources on the ground. Citizen journalism is essential to ensuring no one dimension of a story goes unexplored. (53:15)
  • “If you’re relying on government sources to provide you with imagery, that’s [only] one dimension of a particular story.” (Malachy Browne 54:11)
  • “One of the troubles with YouTube and the other platforms is that they deploy artificial intelligence to detect and take down footage before they even get a complaint — which has really annoyed the human rights community and the journalism community because they’re deleting evidence of human rights abuses before we even get our eyes on it.” (Malachy Browne 1:03:35)
  • “Investigative journalism builds the reputation of [a news] institution. You’re investing in the reporters who can find the goods and important stories that will have impact, societal impact, and change policy for the better.”  (Malachy Brown 1:06:18)
  • In the U.S. alone, 2,000 local newspapers have closed in the last 15 years (1:08:55).
  • “Journalism is the business of information. If you can create a valuable subset of all the information that has been shared out there in a variety of different platforms, then you really are listening in to the conversations that matter.”   (Malachy Browne 1:13:29)
  • Be wary of anything you see on social media that triggers an emotional response. That can be a classic hallmark of disinformation (Malachy Browne 1:14:05)