UC Berkeley pioneers first multidisciplinary OSINT training for journalism and law students

September 16, 2021

From left to right: Brian Nguyen (’22), Andrea Lampros (‘97), Alexa Koenig, Richard Koci Hernandez, Gisela Pérez de Acha (’20) and David Barstow. Photo: Beryl Terry (’23)

The Human Rights Center (HRC) at Berkeley Law and the Investigative Reporting Program at Berkeley Journalism have launched the country’s first multidisciplinary investigative reporting course using open source intelligence (OSINT) at a university. Building off the skills and knowledge incubated in the HRC Investigations Lab at Berkeley Law, the course will introduce journalism and law students to real-life tradecraft in the use of social media and other publicly accessible online material from satellite imagery to shadows from poles and trees to establish timelines and verify events for investigative reporting.

Students will learn from top multidisciplinary experts in international law, investigative reporting, and multimedia journalism. Prof. David Barstow, the Reva and David Logan Distinguished Chair in Investigative Journalism and a former four time Pulitzer Prize-winner at The New York Times, and Richard Koci Hernandez, an award-winning multimedia journalist and Associate Professor at the School are the leads on the journalism side.

J.D. PhD. Alexa Koenig, the HRC’s executive director, co-founder of the HRC Investigations Lab and a lecturer at Berkeley Law, and Andrea Lampros (‘97), associate director and HRC Lab resiliency manager joined the School as lecturers for the effort, bringing to the table more than five years of OSINT leadership in law, advocacy, and journalism. Gisela Pérez de Acha (’20), an OSINT reporter for both the Investigative Reporting Program and the Human Rights Center is acting as managing editor for the class. Brian Nguyen (‘22) is the teaching assistant. HRC Lab’s director Stephanie Croft, who oversees more than 70 HRC Lab students and multiple teams this fall, will be supporting the investigations and analysis.

Associate Professor Richard Koci Hernandez instructing students.

The move follows major industry growth in the use of OSINT at The New York Times, Washington Post, and more recently, the Associated Press.

“Being at one of the top research academies in the world allows us to collaborate and innovate across campus partners to fold cutting edge practices like this into our journalism curriculum,” said Berkeley Journalism Dean Geeta Anand. “Each of these instructors brings so much enthusiasm and expertise to this course and I know our students could not be more thrilled to study this emerging field.”

The course merges the multi-disciplinary OSINT methodologies pioneered by the HRC’s Investigations Lab with traditional investigative reporting techniques. Students will learn how to gather digital material, weed out disinformation campaigns, find new sources of information, and verify the veracity of videos and photos to tell innovative and powerful stories. The class aims to publish two major stories with media partners Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Associated Press.

The relationship between the School and HRC’s Investigations Lab—launched in 2016 and one of the first university-based open source investigations labs to discover and verify human rights violations and potential war crimes—has been evolving. The lab—whose first graduate student leaders were students of Berkeley Journalism —contributed to a Pulitzer Prize-winning story by Reuters’ investigative journalist Steve Stecklow on Myanmar and subsequently contributed open source reporting to The New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press, and other publications.

Andrea Lampros said Pérez de Acha, a 2020 graduate of the journalism school, was key to bringing the lab’s open source work to the school’s Investigative Reporting Program.

Pérez De Acha’s interest in OSINT started during the 2017 Mexico City earthquake when she was part of a volunteer effort to verify social media information to rescue survivors from underneath collapsed buildings. She left her career as an attorney to become a journalist.

In addition to building skills using social media and other publicly available information for reporting, the course also teaches visual storytelling techniques, rigorous fact checking and the evolving ethics of investigative journalism in the digital space. It also includes psycho-social security and resiliency strategies for students doing OSINT reporting.

Just as important when doing OSINT work, Lampros said, is cultivating practices for addressing second-hand trauma from watching hundreds of gruesome videos and photos from war-torn countries, or processing hate-filled language on militant extremist forums. Pérez de Acha is always the first to mention, “the sense of community and resiliency strategies as some of the most important work at the HRC, especially for its women researchers.”

“The OSINT space has typically been dominated by male researchers, but the HRC Lab is a women-led space, with majority people of color,” Koenig said. “We are hoping this effort is the first step towards bringing journalism into an even more inclusive and innovative future.”

To some, a discipline like OSINT can sound intimidating, but Lampros reassures students the class won’t leave anyone behind. “It’s not rocket science, all of us can grasp these concepts,” she said, and students find different areas to focus on. “Some love satellite imagery and corroborating information while others have incredible command of social media platforms like Twitter.”

–Aysha Pettigrew


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