Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

How Open Source Intelligence can Help Journalists Cover Conflicts

Rubble and destruction in Gaza

Rubble and destruction in Gaza

Subramaniam Vincent


Subbu Vincent is the director of Journalism & Media Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, and a monthly contributor at Forbes. He tweets from @subbuvincent and @jmethics. Views are his own. This article, How Open Source Intelligence can Help Journalists Cover Conflicts, originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.

The blast at Gaza’s Al-Ahli Arab hospital on October 17th led to one question: Who did it? It has taken days of analysis of video, audio, images and data using a new capacity called Open Source Intelligence to sort through the claims.

The Wall Street Journal posted this video four days after the blast, which is a classic example of OSINT work. The team analyzed images from four verified cameras and proposed a justification for a rocket that was fired from Gaza going east towards Israel and changed course, eventually leading to the blast at the hospital. Two of the cameras were in Israel pointed towards Gaza, and the other two in Gaza, one of which was Al Jazeera’s. Jane Lytvynenko, a widely respected OSINT investigative journalist, has reporting credits for the article.

This week, George Brumfiel, an NPR science journalist authored another article citing OSINT audio analysis by the NGO Earshot that analyzed the sound of the moving rocket to determine whether it was going towards Israel or coming from Israel. Brumfiel explained why determining responsibility for the Al-Ahli blast is going to be hard.

What is Open Source Intelligence?

OSINT, simply put, is the analysis of openly available or accessible digital footage and data - video, audio, pictures including satellite images, geolocation data, weapons movements and so forth - to answer intelligence questions. They could be about sensitive troop movements, explosions, hidden weapons locations and more. Footage is often but not always posted on social media platforms.

OSINT analysts consider and vet such openly sourced digital materials for authenticity and situational relevance and proceed to use it to corroborate different possibilities. These analysts are often former defense officers, contractors, image analysts, weapons and cyber security experts, technologists, and digital forensics wizards.

OSINT is particularly useful as an independent truth-determination capacity at times of conflict. These are often situations when civilian harm has happened and combatants start exonerating themselves and blaming rivals.

How is OSINT Different From Traditional News?

There are a number of differences.

Not a replacement

OSINT is not a replacement for traditional journalism. It is a capacity built out of a set of analysis capabilities that provide more robust answers and pathways to answers to the very questions journalists and the public often ask: what happened, who did it, when, where, why, how and so forth. OSINT-developed conclusions or rebuttals are often newsworthy and hence become timely and relevant for the news.

Sourcing and claims

Traditional breaking news is often decided on the newsworthiness of claims and the formal title or power of the human actors (sources) making them, such as state actors or CEOs or political leaders. Reporters rely on credentialed sources of knowledge about ongoing developments, but OSINT starts when openly sourced digital materials emerge online on social media or through encrypted/secure channels that analysts and journalists use.

Seeing, not believing

Traditional breaking news can often be done with boots on the ground. The reporters are present in the conflict and see what is unfolding themselves. OSINT analysts on the other hand are often remote and are starting with digital materials arriving from diverse sources in different forms, formats, quality and relevance. Lewis Smart, a Janes OSINT leader, said on a podcast that it took a couple of hours after the start of the Hamas attack on Oct 7th for him to reach the point of situational awareness where they were “believing what they were seeing.”


OSINT becomes particularly useful when there are no (or very few) boots on the ground in the territory where a newsworthy incident has happened. And in such situations, the only sources traditional journalists are still able to access are powerful human actors whose narrative interests may or may not align with the public interest.

OSINT is then a way to get as close as possible to put virtual boots on the ground, even though analysts and journalists will admit it is not perfect.


Traditional breaking news is fast and built around a norm that I call “the public needs to know now,” or immediacy. But it is sometimes not possible for journalists to verify official claims in real time. OSINT is slower and is investigative in function. Its purpose is not to relay official claims.


OSINT builds its credibility over having to explain through annotated videos, graphs and visuals on how they reached a conclusion. Or how they sow doubt in some powerful actor’s claim. The New York Times posted a new OSINT video analysis on October 25th acknowledging that a failed Palestinian rocket could have caused the blast, but cast new doubt on what it termed “highly publicized” evidence that Israeli officials had advanced.

Handling uncertainty

Traditional breaking news is written in a style that inherently avoids listing unknowns, caveats, and uncertainties, or leaves it to the fine print. So readers usually do not know what the newsrooms do not know.

OSINT communities on the other hand are often discussing, debunking, countering, questioning and debating possibilities in public, online. On the Al-Ahli hospital blast, the X OSINT account @geconfirmed posted a curation of several possibilities, citing other accounts and analysts’ work. It included unanswered questions.

How OSINT can Benefit/Impact News Coverage

Let us recap the Al-Ahli hospital blast quickly. Within minutes of the blast, claims and footage emerged online. The first breaking news stories that followed went with Hamas’ claims that Israel Defense Forces was responsible. Soon after, some newsrooms reported the IDF’s counter claims.

Meanwhile the death toll speculations began in a heated atmosphere. Deciding responsibility for the blast based on claims and rapid reviews of emerging videos risks not only inaccuracy, but also fanning the flames of frustrated publics. Yet that is what several breaking stories from newsrooms did.

By evening in the American Pacific Time Zone on the day of the blast, news headlines were reporting that the two sides were trading blame. By the next day, partly because of OSINT analysis emerging, multiple mainstream outlets started settling into more useful, less racy, explainer-like articles. This fosters a greater understanding of the complexity in readers.

On Oct. 23rd, the BBC apologized for their speculative instant analysis on the day of the blasts, and the New York Times acknowledged responsibility for misleading readers through its initial reliance on unverified claims. News always has this risk, but OSINT can work within newsrooms or in partnership for reviewing actual footage and data to identify the more likely scenarios of who did what.

Not surprisingly, OSINT talent has been hired into the major newsrooms. Aric Toler and Arijeta Lajka are part of the New York Times OSINT team. Toler’s work in OSINT is legendary. He moved from Bellingcat, the Netherlands-based investigative newsroom that built a reputation for their OSINT work on Russia.

Unfortunately, one of the signs that the OSINT is getting street cred is that impostors are showing up. A new group of less credible accounts - with X verification badges - are claiming OSINT status to promote their claims during heated chases and news cycles, according to 404 Media reporting. They add to the noise that only get debunked or disproven by others.

Still, the more serious practitioners remain invested in both rigor and responsible use of their power. There has been a recent push to build a code of ethics. The OSINT Applied Ethics guidebook, authored by Melissa Hanham was published in 2022. Some groundwork for this was laid by a Markkula Center for Applied Ethics collaboration I facilitated with the Stanley Center for Peace and Security and OSINT practitioners in 2019.

The important lesson from the Al-Ahli Arab hospital whodunnit is this. Collaboration between newsrooms and OSINT would diversify sourcing and make journalism more rigorous. In doing so, the partnerships better would serve the goals of comprehensiveness and accuracy.

Nov 3, 2023

Subscribe to Our Blogs

* indicates required
Subscribe me to the following blogs: