Al Jazeera Journalism Review

Outside image

Planning and carrying out an open-source investigation

Part 3 of our special series of articles on using OSINT in journalism. This time, follow our four steps to completing an open-source investigation


Journalists can follow four steps to start their open source investigations: 


Step one: Planning 

Before diving into a story you should first determine if an investigation is possible or needed. To keep an investigative mindset it is important to always start with a series of questions. With your questions in mind, you can then formulate a clear strategy and choose the right tools to search for key information. When it comes to information gathering, journalists can decide either to make contact with the target during the investigation or to remain distant from the target and thus have a lower risk of being detected. 

Get started by answering the following questions: 

1: What has prompted the need for the investigation? 

2: What are the key questions that need to be answered? 

3: Which tools and platforms can help gather the required information?


Read more:

Open-Source Investigations, Part 1: Using open-source intelligence in journalism

Open-Source Investigations, Part 2: What is an open-source investigation?

Al Jazeera Media Institute Open-Source Investigation Handbook


Search techniques

● Incorporate social media data to cross-reference your findings. Pay particular attention to who was the original source of this information, when this information was posted and where this information was posted from. 

● Do a reverse image search using TinEye or Google Images. A reverse image search allows you to upload an image and immediately see when and where this image was first used across the web. 

● Use other platforms like WeVerify, to fact-check videos and images online.



Step two: Structure and secure information 

Once you have a plan in place, you can now begin identifying the sources you will be using to collect and archive your data so that it remains secure. It is important not to lose sight of ethical, safety and legal considerations especially when dealing with personal data. Various data privacy laws including the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and many others, exist to govern the collection, use and storage of personal data. 

Always evaluate any potential data storage risks and keep evidence and documentation safe by using encrypted storage. Also, don’t forget to take precautions to ensure your identity remains secure. 


Various groups including the investigative journalism group, Bellingcat; the Global Legal Action Network; and the Syrian Archive among others have created a standard process for archiving and investigating open-source evidence. Collecting, preserving and building a body of evidence can serve as proof of power abuses and human rights violations.



Step three: Verifying your information 

Raw information gathered must be analysed and processed before any useful or actionable conclusions can be drawn. This includes contacting people and verifying findings across multiple sources. Verification is an iterative process that involves three main phases:

Verifying the source - Where did you get the information from? 

Verifying the content - Is the information actually what it claims to be? 

Verifying its relevance - Does this information fit into your investigation?




Geolocation is the process of determining the geographic position of a particular event. This can be done by using tools such as Google Maps or Google Earth to match geographical features seen in the footage you are investigating. You can cross-reference stills from the footage to satellite imagery to confirm whether or not a video was indeed taken from a particular location. In some cases, it is possible to identify the approximate time the footage was captured by analysing the sunlight and shadows. Using SunCalc for example, it is possible to analyse the position of shadows and the sun at any given time and date, at any given location.


Step four: Publishing your findings 

Finally, journalists should publish their findings as well as show the process behind their investigations with the aim of ensuring transparency as well as building trust with the audience. Ensure that your findings are presented across various digital platforms to ensure your story can have the widest available reach.



Useful tools and networks

● Bellingcat’s Online Investigative Toolkit 

● First Steps to Getting Started in Open Source Research features weekly podcasts, webcasts and “10 minute tips” on video covering many aspects of doing open source investigations. It’s a community project begun in late 2018 by about 10 contributing experts 

● The Open Source Intelligence Framework has a very detailed and ever-growing list of digital investigative tools 

Exposing the Invisible Kit by Tactical Teck 

Open Source Intelligence Techniques by Michael Bazzell 

Online Research Tools by Global Investigative Journalism Network

Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) 

Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) 

Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) 

International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) 

C4ADS is a non-profit organisation dedicated to data-driven analysis and evidence-based reporting of conflict and security issues worldwide. 

This article has been adapted from the Al Jazeera Media Institute’s Open-Source Investigation Handbook.



More Articles

Analysis: The media’s coverage of the Pakistan cable car incident

It was a roller coaster ride with news organisations all over the world giving minute-by-minute reports on the daring rescue. How does the media create suspense and is this sort of coverage useful?

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 21 Sep, 2023
How to use data to report on earthquakes

Sifting through data sounds clinical, but journalists can use it to seek out the human element when reporting on natural disasters such as earthquakes

Arwa Kooli Published on: 19 Sep, 2023
‘I had no idea how to report on this’ - local journalists tackling climate change stories

Local journalists are key to informing the public about the devastating dangers of climate change but, in India, a lack of knowledge, training and access to expert sources is holding them back

Saurabh Sharma
Saurabh Sharma Published on: 13 Sep, 2023
Ethical reporting - how to cover suicide responsibly

Sensationalist reporting of suicide cases has been shown to cause a rise in the numbers of people taking their own lives in affected communities. Journalists must take great care

Abeer Ayyoub
Abeer Ayyoub Published on: 7 Sep, 2023
‘Don’t let someone else narrate your stories for you’ - travel journalists in the global south

THE LONG READ: Life as a travel journalist isn’t just for privileged Westerners ‘discovering’ quaint parts of south-east Asia and Africa

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 1 Sep, 2023
‘People need to stop blindly obeying the law’ - journalists fighting on the fringes in Vietnam

THE LONG READ: Imprisoned, exiled and forced to base themselves overseas, independent journalists in Vietnam are punished harshly if they publish the ‘wrong’ sort of content. Some, such as Luật Khoa tạp chí, are fighting back

Al Jazeera Journalism Review Correspondent Published on: 25 Aug, 2023
Ethics and safety in OSINT - can you believe what you see?

OSINT is increasingly important for journalists in a digital world. We take a look at ethics, safety on the internet and how to spot a ‘deepfake’

Sara Creta Published on: 15 Aug, 2023
‘Other journalists jeer at us’ – life for mobile journalists in Cameroon

Journalists in Cameroon are using their phones in innovative ways to report the news for many different types of media, but major news organisations have still not caught up

Akem Nkwain Published on: 1 Aug, 2023
‘Life of journalists is cheap’ - how the Philippines became deadly for reporters

Forging ahead with a career in journalism is fraught with difficulty in the Philippines - and many are walking away. What went so wrong?

Ana P Santos Published on: 19 Jul, 2023
Analysis: Could AI replace humans in journalism?

Recent advances in AI are mind-blowing. But good journalism requires certain skills which, for now at least, only humans can master

Mei Shigenobu
Mei Shigenobu Published on: 17 Jul, 2023
Analysis: Comparing coverage of the Titanic submersible and migrant boat disasters

Two disasters costing human lives have occurred at sea in the past two weeks, but the media coverage of each was markedly different. How and why?

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 28 Jun, 2023
The silencing of Sudan's journalists - again

THE LONG READ: Detained, beaten and their cameras smashed - Sudan’s journalists are enduring a renewed crackdown on the media

Philip Obaji Jr
Philip Obaji Jr Published on: 7 Jun, 2023
'Rebuilt memory by memory' - recreating a Palestinian village 75 years after the Nakba

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: How it took the collective memories of several generations, painstaking interviews and a determined search through tall grass and prickly plants to recreate a destroyed community

Amandas Ong Published on: 4 Jun, 2023
Suffering in silence - the Kashmiri journalists facing a mental health crisis

THE LONG READ: Al Jazeera Journalism Review has interviewed more than 20 journalists in India-controlled Kashmir who are facing exhausting, insurmountable obstacles to doing their jobs safely every single day

Adil Akhoon
Adil Amin Akhoon, Khalid Bashir Gura Published on: 29 May, 2023
How to analyse satellite imagery

When you have a story, but still need to tie up loose ends to answer where or when a particular event occurred, satellite imagery can point you in the right direction

Sara Creta Published on: 25 May, 2023
OSINT: Tracking ships, planes and weapons

Tracking ships and planes is an increasingly valuable technique in open-source investigations carried out by journalists. In part 4 of our special series, we examine how it works

Sara Creta Published on: 18 May, 2023
How social media bans have crippled journalism in India’s Punjab

The Indian government has ordered social media platforms to block hundreds of accounts of journalists and activists

Meer Faisal
Meer Faisal Published on: 16 May, 2023
Tear gas and internet blackouts - reporting on protests in Pakistan

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: Following the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, violence has erupted across Pakistan. For journalists, it is like reporting from the centre of a storm

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 14 May, 2023
Remembering Shireen; my colleague and a 'role model for professionalism'

On the eve of the first anniversary of the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, Al Jazeera's Senior Correspondent in Palestine, her colleague commemorates the compassion, integrity and professionalism which made her the extraordinary journalist and human being that she was

Walid Omary Published on: 10 May, 2023
What is an open-source investigation?

In the second part of our special series on using open-source intelligence in journalism, we look at what constitutes and open-source investigation

Sara Creta Published on: 4 May, 2023
How misinformation in the media wreaked havoc on an Indian village

When journalists - and social media ‘influencers’ claiming to be journalists - aimed for sensationalism and did not check their facts about the outbreak of the HIV virus in an Indian village, the results were devastating

Saurabh Sharma
Saurabh Sharma Published on: 1 May, 2023
Using open-source intelligence in journalism

Where once journalists relied on sources for information - also known as ‘human intelligence’ (HUMINT) - they now increasingly rely on ‘open-source’ intelligence (OSINT) gathered from the internet, satellite imagery, corporate databases and much, much more

Phil Rees Published on: 12 Apr, 2023
Why is life so dangerous for Pakistani journalists?

Pakistani journalists face huge danger in the course of carrying out their work. Why is so little being done to address this?

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 6 Apr, 2023
Investigating the assassination of my own father

As a journalist, reporting on the murder of my father meant answering questions about my own position as an objective observer

Diana Lopez
Diana Lopez Zuleta Published on: 3 Apr, 2023