June 20, 2021

Event Coverage Highlight

Kim Wall Award Winner Recalls Breakthrough Moments in Syria Reporting

Louise Roug, left, and Malachy Browne. Image via Zoom.

by Chad Bouchard

In 2019, the New York Times Visual Investigations team used a matrix of witness reports and aircraft radio communications in Syria to prove that Russian pilots had bombed civilian targets, including four hospitals and a camp for displaced families. Cross-referencing data from video footage and photographs on the ground, as well as reports from civilian plane spotters, flight logs, social media posts and recordings of radio communications from pilots, the team built a database to establish timelines and locations that could be verified from multiple sources.

On Jan. 12, the OPC hosted a discussion with Malachy Browne, senior producer for the New York Times team that produced the report, titled “The Russia Tapes: Health Care and Civilians Under Attack in Syria,” which won this year’s Kim Wall Award. The moderator was Louise Roug, executive editor, international at HuffPost, who served as head judge for the award.

Browne said the team saw their biggest breakthrough after obtaining thousands of recordings of Russian air force communication.

He recounted a moment early in the investigation in May 2019 when several hospitals were attacked on the same day. The team started to establish links in their data. He said Dmitriy Khavin, the senior video editor for the project who is a native Russian speaker, sent coordinates to Evan Hill, a video journalist on the team, “and [Hill] said ‘we’ve got ‘em!’ Because the coordinates matched exactly one of the hospitals that they had bombed. That was a slam dunk,” Browne said.

The team also established patterns in the preparations for attacks, in which pilots would receive coordinates electronically, get confirmation or corrections on the location verbally over radio, and declare what minute they were going to launch bombs. That information could be checked against visual evidence and spotter reports.

Roug asked Browne about the motivation for attacking medical facilities, some of which were bombed two or more times in what strategists call a “double tap,” with second and subsequent attacks often intended to target first responders arriving in the wake of the first attack.

“The whole tactic here is to really terrorize the civilian population into submission. If you think about it, hospitals in particular are like the final sanctuary for communities. You’re keeping people away from health care, scaring [civilians] them away because [they think they] could be killed, even if it’s an underground hospital. That’s a tactic.”

Browne said he honed his digital reporting skills while working previously for Storyful, a social media news agency, and then a now-defunct startup called Reportedly, which was led by Andy Carvin, a former NPR staff member known for closely tracking events during the Arab Spring using social media and crowdsourcing. He joined the Times in 2016 and soon helped to launch a crew that used data and visual evidence to report on breaking news and deeper investigations.

Browne also discussed recent work of the Visual Investigations team in reconstructing the police shooting death of Breonna Taylor, and in reconstructing events leading up to violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

The Kim Wall Award honors the best story or series of stories on international affairs using creative and dynamic digital storytelling techniques

Along with Browne, also named on the team’s Kim Wall award were Christiaan Triebert, video journalist, Evan Hill, video journalist, Dmitriy Khavin, senior video editor, and Whitney Hurst, senior producer.

Read the winning work here: https://www.nytimes.com/spotlight/visual-investigations-russia-syria

Watch a playlist of video clips from the program below: