Satellite images as proof

In the past week, three stories on three very different issues showed once again how satellite images, until recently confined to the weather report, are now the stuff of front-page news.  All three are important stories with wide-ranging implications on public policy. But they also raise questions about the reliability of satellite imagery as proof and the ability of journalists – and their audiences – to make sense of them. Just like photographs, satellite images without context can distort the truth. And like photography, interpreting satellite imagery is as much art as it is science.

In recent years, there have been a number of journalistic projects that made good use of the wealth of satellite imagery, which is increasingly freely available. The 2006 project Vanishing Wetlands by the St. Petersburg Times, is a good, early example. Comparing  satellite photos  taken in the late 1980s and in 2003, the report showed how 84,000 acres of wetlands in Florida had vanished in the previous 15 years right under the noses of regulators tasked with  protecting them. But the learning curve for using satellite images is steep, and for the most part, journalists have lagged behind other users, including NGOs, in making full use of them.

On Thursday, NATO released five  satellite photos from an independent company called Digital Globe that purport to show Russian combat troops and artillery crossing into the Ukrainian border, contradicting Russian and Ukrainian separatist claims that no such incursions had taken place. The images are dated August 21, 2014, and they appear authentic, but most news reports published the photographs from the NATO press release without independently verifying their provenance or the reliability of the NATO interpretation.  The best roundup was from the Washington Post, which pieced the images together with reports, videos and photos from the field in a story that asks a question without giving a definitive answer, “Has Russia invaded Ukraine? Here’s what we know.”

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On the same day, August 28,  the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Pro Publica and the New Orleans nonprofit news site The Lens unveiled “Losing Ground,” an interactive map using satellite imagery that showed how nearly 2,000 square miles of coastal land in southeastern Louisiana had disappeared in the past 80 years as levees, canals and oil wells and pipelines were built. Given the current rate that the sea is rising and land sinking, the story said, most of southeastern Louisiana would be under water in 50 years.

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Using 40 years worth of images from NASA’s Landsat satellites, the report dramatized the scale and severity of the problem. Two Pro Publica developer-journalists worked six months to process the Landsat sensing data and used maps and aerial photography from the US Geological Survey dating back to the 1920s. The resulting news app visualized  how much the land had changed in 80 years.

As described in a blog post by  Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism:

The opening scene of the app has eight layers. The top one uses scanned copy of a 1922 survey map owned by the USGS and scanned by the Louisiana State University library. Jacobs pulled it into his mapping software to match the geographic features with GIS location data and used photoshop to prepare it for online display; cutting out the water and normalizing the color.

The bottom layer displays the 2014 coastline – stitched together from six Landsat 8 tiles, including many steps of processing. Jacobs picked out images from satellite passes when the skies were free from cloud cover. After pulling in the image tiles from the infrared and true-color bands and merging them together, Jacobs normalized the distortions and color differences so the separate images would mosaic consistently.

The third story using satellite imagery this past week  came from the Daily Mail and it says that contrary to the claims made by Al Gore and climate-change scientists, the Arctic sea ice cap has expanded since 2012.  It’s a rehash of a story the Mail published at around this time last year and was widely excoriated by science blogs and the Guardian for peddling “Arctic sea ice delusions.”

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The Daily Mail didn’t say exactly where the satellite images came from, what dates they were taken, and what changes, if any were made on those images. The original images were not shown; instead what appeared to be one image was made part of a graphic and readers were not told whether this image was a photoshopped version of the original. More importably, even if the images were reliably true, year-by-year changes in sea ice are not an indication of global warming. “The Arctic has lost 75 percent of its summer sea ice volume over the past three decades primarily due to human-caused global warming,” said the Guardian, “but in any given year the weather can act to either preserve more or melt more sea ice. Last year the weather helped melt more ice, while this year the weather helped preserve more ice.”

Stories like this make it seem that satellite images are the next frontier in a high-stakes propaganda war being fought in the media. It’s true that there have been a few examples of innovative and sophisticated use of satellite imagery, but journalists have not always been helpful in providing context, in verifying the provenance and meaning of the images and in assessing their reliability. Read the rest of this entry »


Leak investigations and the right to report

silencedLast night, I moderated a discussion that followed the screening of Silenced, a new documentary that tells the stories of three whistleblowers who exposed torture, mass surveillance and government waste. Directed by Jamies Spione, funded partly by a $40,000-Kickstarter fundraising campaign, and executive-produced by Susan Sarandon, it’s a powerful film that shows how these insiders in the national-security establishment were intimidated and penalized for exposing the abuse of government power.

Their stories are not new. What Spione brought to the screen was the humanity of the whistleblowers and the patriotic idealism that compelled them to work in government agencies like the NSA and the CIA and then to speak out against the excesses they saw there. If anything, Silenced dramatizes how the landscape of government secrecy has changed dramatically since 9/11 and the war on terror. It makes the argument that whistleblowers play an essential role: Leaks are a necessary prophylactic, especially when they reveal the abuse of public authority and the harm done to the rights of citizens.

Investigative journalism is all about uncovering secrets, but no journalist will dispute that governments have the right to keep things under wraps. Secrecy, however, is also prone to abuse. Not all secrecy is justified, and it can be argued that whistleblowers and leakers deserve protection if they disclose important, if secret, information that is in the public interest.

These questions have come to the fore as technology has made leaking easier — the estimated 1.7 million documents that NSA contractor Edward Snowden supposedly has in some hard drives is a good example. At the same time, more advanced tools of email and phone surveillance have enhanced the ability of governments to track the sources of leaks.

Until this month, I thought that the U.S. government’s aggressive pursuit of media leaks was confined to state secrets and national security. But as it turns out, it’s not just the CIA, the National Security Agency or the Justice Department that has gone after unauthorized information disclosures.

One of my former students, Reuters reporter Sarah N. Lynch, was recently the subject of a six-month probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission. In September last year, she wrote two stories revealing what took place in an executive session of the SEC, when the commissioners were deciding on the agency’s settlement with JP Morgan over the “London Whale” trading charges. The sources of the stories were unnamed, and at the behest of the SEC chair, Mary Jo White, the SEC’s Office of the Inspector General launched an inquiry into what it says were unauthorized disclosures of information. Investigators checked the email and phone records of 39 employees, interviewed 53 staff members, including all five commissioners, and examined building access logs scanning for reporters’ names.

In an article published by the Columbia Journalism Review yesterday, I wrote about the probe and similar ones that the SEC has undertaken since the 2008 financial crisis. From semi-annual reports that the OIG has submitted to Congress, I found that in the course of eight investigations of media leaks in the past six years, the SEC had examined some one million emails sent by nearly 300 members of its staff, interviewed some 100 of its own employees and trolled the phone records of scores more. ( A table with details of those investigations is here.)

It’s difficult to figure out what was at stake in what the SEC says were unauthorized disclosures. Certainly not state security. Nor was it the leak of trade secrets or the untimely release of tradable information because the SEC itself has provided nonpublic information to the press in what appears to be an effort to show it was aggressively pursuing wrongdoers in the corporate and financial realms. This double standard – going after “inconvenient” leaks while tolerating or even encouraging beneficial ones – holds particularly true for the national security arena as well. Read the rest of this entry »


Investigating with drones, stone tablets and the web (yes, LinkedIn, too)

This video was taken by a drone and then posted on a popular web portal in China. It provides an aerial view of the luxurious home of the son of Zhou Yongkang, the country’s security chief. There’s not much commentary here, just tracking shots of a white, two-story mansion built in the traditional style.

But the real evidence showing corruption in the Zhou family wasn’t dug up by drones.

Instead, it was names etched on tombstones in a village in China’s Jiangsu Province that allowed reporters to find the corruption trail. In China, names of family members, living and dead, are recorded on stone tablets in family burial plots. As Michael Forsythe and his team of New York Times reporters recounted recently, that’s how they found the names of Zhou’s first and second wives, his two sons, his brothers and in-laws.

Despite all the wonders of the digital era, a lot of information that journalists need is (still) not online, but in reams of paper gathering dust in government offices – or even in stone tablets in forgotten burial plots. Some of it is not even recorded at all, but resides in people’s heads.

The eureka moment often comes when information from humans or from paper (or stone, as the case may be) is matched with what’s available in digital format. In the case of Zhou, what the Times found was a trail of illicit wealth, none of it in the official’s name. That discovery was made by matching the names on the stone tablets with those on corporate records found on the website of the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, the government agency that keeps track of companies. They got paper records from the agency as well.

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What kind of reporting makes an impact? Some answers from Pakistan

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The website of the Federal Bureau of Revenue in Pakistan released on Saturday the tax payments made by Members of Parliament.

On February 15, Pakistan became one of only four countries in the world that make tax records public. The other three are Norway, Finland and Sweden. A year ago, no one would have thought this was possible. Pakistan, after all, is a cesspool of corruption and a paragon of opacity. But check the website of the Federal Bureau of Revenue and you’ll find prominently displayed there a link to the Parliamentarians’ Tax Directory.  Click on the link and you’ll get a PDF that lists how much income tax each and every member of Parliament paid in 2013. On March 31, a similar listing will be made publicly available for the tax payments of all citizens.

How in the world could this happen in Pakistan?

A large part of the credit should go to the intrepid Umar Cheema, founder of the Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan (CIRP), which in the past year published two well-documented reports that showed tax evasion on an epic scale. The success of this project inspired me to take up this blog again after several months of inactivity. It’s not always that investigative reporting makes such clear and dramatic impact. So it’s a good time to revisit a question that’s often asked: What  kind of reporting makes an impact? What stars must align for reforms to follow in the wake of an exposé?

In the past two weeks, I have been lecturing my students about the importance of crafting the investigative narrative and engaging readers. Good narratives make impact, I said. Yet the two reports that the CIRP has published are densely written, numbers-packed pamphlets, each about 70 pages long. There are no sexy graphics, no stunning multimedia, no gripping and polished stories. The prose is dry – they could well have been written by the World Bank. Moreover, the reports confirmed what people in many developing countries already know: The rich don’t pay taxes. And yet they captured the popular imagination and forced the government to do the unthinkable. Why?

Pakistan is a basket case in terms of tax collection. It has one of the worst tax-to-GDP ratios in the world – just nine percent, worse even than Afghanistan’s 11 percent. Three years ago, the finance minister told parliament that Pakistan’s ratio was second to the bottom among 154 countries. Yet nothing was done.

In December 2012, the newly formed CIRP released its first report, which showed that two-thirds of Pakistani MPs  did not pay taxes. Neither, it said, did the high-living, polo-playing, playboy President Asif Ali Zardari and more than half his Cabinet. The findings got wide play in Pakistan’s free-wheeling press. Perhaps it was the specificity of the details, the fact that it named and shamed and put precise numbers that showed the extent of the tax evasion – the report caught fire and stoked the public anger. (I wrote how that project was researched in an earlier post.)

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The nonprofit news model is fragile

Nonprofits have been touted as a possible alternative to the collapsing business models of for-profit news. But a study released this week by the the Pew Research Center points to the fragility of that model and also to the need for a more concerted effort to shore it up.

The study identified 172 nonprofit news outlets throughout the U.S. – two-thirds of these were launched only since the 2008 financial crisis. While the recession has accelerated the closure of newspapers and the downsizing of news staffs throughout the country, it has given rise to a boom in nonprofit news.  Today 41 states have at least one nonprofit news organization.

Nonprofits have attracted a lot of attention partly because of the innovative and high-impact reporting some of them have done. Pro Publica celebrated its fifth birthday this month, with two Pulitzers under its belt and an impressive track record of trailblazing investigative journalism. The Center for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, meanwhile, have been making waves worldwide with the release of a series of stories on offshore secrecy. And last month, the little-known Inside Climate News, a Brooklyn startup with an eight-person staff, was awarded the Pulitzer for its investigation of an oil spill.

So can bad (financial) times be good times for news? Read the rest of this entry »


Are wealth disclosures dangerous?

On April 15, French ministers posted their asset disclosures online for the first time ever. A week later, Obama reversed a 2012 law that required Congress and other officials to post their disclosures online.

On April 15, French ministers posted their asset disclosures online for the first time ever. On the same day, Obama reversed a 2012 law that required officials to post their disclosures online.

About a third of all countries in the world now require officials to publicly disclose their assets. Institutions like the World Bank and the OECD see this as a good thing. Asset declarations, they say, are crucial tools for fighting corruption and holding officials accountable. As an investigative journalist in the Philippines, I found asset statements vital to digging into conflicts of interest and the illegal accumulation of wealth by those in public office. Asset statements are mother lodes of information – and journalists in Russia, South Africa, Bosnia and Thailand, to name only a few, have found them crucial to their investigations of official wrongdoing.

There is as yet no global consensus on the merits of asset transparency. Last week, Chinese authorities detained six anticorruption activists who had been demanding that senior Communist Party officials declare their wealth. The demands come in the wake of exposés in the U.S. press, including a report that recently won the Pulitzer Prize, on the billions – yes, billions – illegally amassed by the so-called Red Nobility.

But the pushback on official disclosures comes from an unlikely quarter as well. Last Monday On April 15, President Obama signed a law that reversed a provision in The STOCK Act of 2012, which required members of Congress, legislative staff and senior officials of the executive branch to post their financial disclosures online. As my former student Sasha Chavkin pointed out in an informative piece for the Columbia Journalism Review, the 2012 law also came on the heels of scandal – a 60 Minutes exposé on insider trading by congressmen.

For some time now, critics of asset transparency have been saying that wealth disclosures are unnecessary violations of privacy. Rather than disincentivizing corruption, they say, disclosures only provide fodder for “asset porn.” More importantly, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) in Washington, DC said in a recent study that these disclosures, if posted in online databases, pose dangers to law enforcement and national security. NAPA also asserted that asset disclosures have “limited value” in terms of detecting conflicts of interest or insider trading.

On April 15, for the first time ever, French government ministers were required to publicly declare what they own, in what has been called a historic Great Revelation or Le Grand Déballage. Like elsewhere, the demand for wealth disclosure was stoked by scandal. First, an exposé on the French muckraking site Mediapart, that alleged that the budget minister, Jerome Cahuzac, had an undisclosed – and untaxed – account in the Swiss bank UBS. In March, the minister was forced to resign and is now facing tax fraud charges. Then, just weeks later, Le Monde and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists revealed that President Francois Hollande’s close friend and campaign treasurer, Jean-Jacques Augier, had secret investments in two offshore companies in the Cayman Islands.

The asset declarations, posted on a government website, were seen as an attempt by Hollande to repair the damage from the scandals. The French president is now proposing to extend the mandatory disclosures to the entire parliament and other elected officials. This is quite revolutionary. France has so far bucked the transparency tide, even if most EU and OECD countries now require public disclosures of official wealth and the World Bank preaches the virtues of asset transparency to its clients in the developing world. As the BBC reported, French resistance remains fierce:

Read the rest of this entry »


Muckraking in Putin’s Russia

Putin aims a tranquilizer gun at a tiger at a nature reserve. Photo from  premiere.gov.ru.

Putin aims a tranquilizer gun at a tiger at a nature reserve. Photo from premiere.gov.ru. (Creative Commons license)

Can the worst of times for media and political freedoms in post-Soviet Russia also be the best of times for watchdog reporting?

Elizaveta Osetinskyaya, the editor of  Forbes Russia, the most prominent business magazine in that country, seemed to think so. It’s a paradox, she said. The Russian media is confronting some of the most formidable political and financial challenges it has faced since the fall of communism. Yet she thinks investigative reporting has never been more vibrant nor its quality better. “Nowadays you can’t hide anything,” she said,” the declarations of officials, their assets overseas, you cannot even hide your offshore accounts.”

“Second,” she continued, “Western [media] brands came to Russia in the end of the 1990s and the early 2000s, bringing high standards and technologies for investigative journalism. I started as a journalist in 1995. A lot of investigative pieces at that time came from leaks from oligarchs. This is not the way I would prefer to find information myself. Nowadays that is more possible than before. Third, despite more restrictive laws, there are now more clear and transparent rules [for businesses and for officials], such as international standards of accounting. Now we have a lot of databases. We have information about tenders. You can find a lot of information about the schemes of private companies. Fourth, there are a lot of independent bloggers who help us do our jobs.”

Osetinskaya was speaking at Columbia’s Harriman Institute, which brought in brought in five of Russia’s leading muckrakers in a forum last week. Put five Russian investigative journalists together in a room and you’re bound to have fireworks. The consensus: Vladimir Putin is bad news for for the Russian press. Since his election to a third term last year, the State Duma has recriminalized defamation and passed new laws that would authorize state censorship of critical websites. There is now far less tolerance for critical reporting than there was during the previous president, Dmitry Medvedev. At the same time, violent assaults on journalists continue.

So it was no surprise that others didn’t quite share Osetinskaya’s optimism. Elena Milashina has been for 16 years an investigative journalist for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, where she continues the work of her slain colleague Anna Politkovsyaka, reporting on Chechnya and also investigating attacks on journalists. Last year, Milashina was attacked and beaten up by unknown men while on her way home. The beatings were so severe, she suffered a concussion, 14 blood clots and a broken tooth.

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