Putin’s Attack on Ukraine: Documenting War Crimes
Entry type: Single project
Country/area: United States
Publishing organisation: The Associated Press, FRONTLINE
Organisation size: Big
Publication date: 2022-03-16
Authors: Authors: Erika Kinetz, Tom Jennings, Sasha Stashevskiy, Annie Wong, Vasilisa Stepanenko, Michael Biesecker, Beatrice DuPuy, Sarah El Deeb.
Contributors: Sharon Lynch, Carla Borras, Anthony DeLorenzo, Dan Nolan, Richard Lardner, Helen Wieffering, Larry Fenn, Jason Dearen, Priyanka Boghani, Aasma Mojiz, Miles Alvord, Joshua Goodman, Juliet Linderman, Taras Lazer, Maddie Kornfield, Adam Pemble, Allen Breed, Solamiia Hera, Janine Graham.
Editors: Alison Kodjak and Mary Rajkumar
This project was a true team effort involving more than a dozen AP journalists and several staff members and filmmakers from PBS FRONTLINE. It included about half the reporters on AP’s investigative team from the US, Europe and the Middle East, a data reporter, news verification reporter, two video journalists and web producers.
For FRONTLINE, the team included a film director, producer, web app developer, web designer, three reporters and an editor.
The teams worked together seamlessly to report stories for print and video while also lending their talent to creative graphic animations, photos, video and the interactive web experience.
Prize committee’s comments:
Wars are hideous moments of history. In wars with more civilian casualties, where basic civilian rules are disrespected, things are even more detrimental.
Showing war crimes is a way to reveal that it’s about way more than a power contest involving military forces. That’s what the Associated Press team presented in partnership with FRONTLINE.
In a war scene, between struggles to access information and, first of all, to confirm data which depends on government clearance that are contaminated by political interests, Journalism can fulfill a fundamental role allowing people to know about what is really happening.
The product complies with several requirements to be recognized as Data Journalism. Although it’s a hard subject, the team found interesting ways to present the history to the public. By using icons and filters resources, it allows to scale the problem. More than that, it presents proofs of each case quoted. It uses video, through the documentary, as a visual synthesis, by not letting any doubts that war crimes were committed. The special material is aligned to a trend of transparency, where the public was invited to know which was the methodology used to release the story.
It’s another example of great Journalism. It’s a reference.
The Associated Press and FRONTLINE spent 2022 documenting evidence of potential war crimes committed in Russia’s war in Ukraine, and reporting on the atrocities and the search for justice. Just 30 days after the war started, we launched War Crimes Watch Ukraine, an interactive web experience where reporters documented visual evidence of targeted attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure that likely violates the laws of war.
The reaction to this body of work has been widespread and ongoing. Early on, two groups affiliated with the U.S. State Department asked AP to meet about this work because they were impressed with our documentation and verification standards.
An adviser to Ukrainian war crimes prosecutors told the AP, “You have described the beginning of the criminal enterprise and Putin’s role in it.” A team of lawyers pursuing civil litigation on destruction of property in Bucha said they are including the “Crime Scene: Bucha” video in their filing with the European Court of Human Rights.
A prominent Russian dissident journalist living in Ukraine, Alexandr Nevzorov, urged his followers, “Watch without fail. Very strong but simple and intelligible material about Bucha. Created by the Associated Press. If anyone had any “doubts” about the criminality of Putinites there will be none left.”
Ukrainian prosecutors increased their scrutiny of General Chaiko and his presence in Zdvyzhivka.
For War Crimes Watch Ukraine, AP and FRONTLINE built a database of wartime incidents that likely were violations of international humanitarian law and the laws of war. Reporters analyzed the open source images and claims using satellite imagery, facial recognition apps, reverse image searches and other open-source reporting techniques to verify that the images and claims were real. The database was built using a combination of Google Sheets and Airtable, a cloud collaboration platform made up of a database, a web interface that resembles a spreadsheet for reporters to use, and an API to support building external applications.
We then built a public interface using a static site generator, Gatsby. Gatsby is based on React, a popular front end framework. These tools allowed for the application to be built efficiently and flexibly as the nature of the war in Ukraine and its crimes evolved. For instance, as we better understood the nature of the war crimes, we were able to dynamically add different facets and categorizations to incidents and display those with little additional work on the web application.
For Crime Scene Bucha, AP and FRONTLINE partnered with SITU Research and the Ukrainian citizen research group Jus Talionis to document the patterns of violence in the Ukrainian village. Over a period of weeks, researchers from Jus Talionis flew drones extensively documenting the city of Bucha. SITU took this unique city-wide dataset and built a digital model of the town and layered in evidence, including locations of bodies, CCTV footage of Russian soldiers, photographs from AP photographers and video from FRONTLINE filmmakers to create an immersive short documentary that shows the magnitude of the horror that befell this single community. This effort cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Context about the project:
This was a true cross continental, multi-format effort that involved dozens of people from two news organizations. It demanded major coordination and also creativity.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, there was almost immediately a flood of visual evidence of potential war crimes appearing on social media. AP and FRONTLINE sought to verify what was happening to separate fact from hoax, and also to counter Russia’s efforts to deny what was happening. We moved quickly to train reporters both in reporting techniques that would allow them to verify events and claims using open source techniques, and also to familiarize the team with international humanitarian law and the laws of war.
Just 30 days after the invasion, we launched War Crimes Watch Ukraine, an interactive web experience where reporters documented visual evidence of targeted attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure that likely violates the laws of war. For ten months the catalog was updated daily.
As our teams in the US and the Middle East worked from afar, AP’s investigative reporters and FRONTLINE’s film team went to Ukraine and worked with local staff to document the atrocities on the ground. AP reporter Erika Kinetz worked tirelessly to develop sources in Ukraine, an effort that eventually paid off when she obtained hundreds of hours of CCTV footage from the city of Bucha during Russia’s occupation and thousands of audio intercepts of Russian soldiers calling home and talking about their actions and the fighting conditions.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
In the age of social media, journalists can report on and document events in faraway places and don’t have to be constrained by geography. However, that kind of reporting requires the same rigor and fact checking that on-site reporting requires. Using open source verification techniques and resources can allow that kind of rigor. Our reporters started with an image, video or claim found online, or in other news reports. They then used satellite imagery, Google maps and Google photos, reverse image searches, facial recognition apps and other techniques, along with traditional reporting via phone calls and interviews, to verify what they had found.
In building War Crimes Watch Ukraine, AP and FRONTLINE created a data set that didn’t otherwise exist and we were able to use that to tell additional stories of the war. The database led directly to stories about hospital bombings, attacks on schools and their effect on children, and the destruction of energy infrastructure.
It also pays to weigh the best medium for each story. For the investigation into grain smuggling, for example, it was clear that visual storytelling that shows each step in the smuggling operation would be most revealing.