Bellingcat made me a sharper journalist

It’s a good idea for everyone to keep exploring your professional field and to keep learning. To this end, it’s best to pick something you like. For me, that’s investigative journalism. Of course you get to write all kinds of pieces as a Cursor editor, but a societally relevant story with a lot of depth always makes my heart beat faster. I decided to take things up a notch at Bellingcat, the investigative journalism network focused on fact-checking and OSINT. Maybe you know them from the investigation into the Russian claim that Ukraine shot down flight MH17. Bellingcat proved the satellite images had been manipulated and Russia’s claim was therefore false.

photo South_agency / iStock

OSINT stands for Open Source Intelligence, although Bellingcat has a love-hate relationship with this word. The organization uses open sources to conduct investigations, just like OSINT professionals, but the INT in the acronym suggests this is something that only intelligence agencies do. Bellingcat is emphatically not an intelligence agency. The investigative journalism foundation does not work with government services and in principle (and despite requests to the contrary) does not wish to train government officials, which means every training applicant is screened.

The training course I took teaches you such things as figuring out the story behind a photo, determining geolocations and times of day, analyzing satellite images, conducting research on social media, recognizing AI images, checking public financial data and tracking vessels and aircraft. Almost all investigative techniques focus on fact-checking, the activity that Bellingcat is most renowned for in the context of the MH17 disaster. They also helped Interpol by analyzing photos of abused children - an exception to the 'no-intelligence-personnel rule' -  and as a result tracking down child abusers.


A few days after Bellingcat was founded, Malaysia Airlines flight 17 (MH17) was shot down on 17 July 2014. The airplane had been travelling to Kuala Lumpur from Schiphol when it crashed in Eastern Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew members. In a press conference, Russia said the Ukrainian army had shot down the plane and presented radar data and satellite images in support of this claim.

Bellingcat investigated those images and data, proving that they had been manipulated and consisted of images publicly available on the internet. This is a concept that was extensively covered in the course I took: how can you be sure that an image accompanying a news item was actually captured during the event described by the journalist?

I’ve noticed I’m always sharp and ‘on’ in my work as a journalist, not only in my own investigations, but also and particularly when press releases come in. It may be tempting to publish them quickly because things are so busy, but I’ve simply discovered too many mistakes in releases to blindly follow the news agencies. Thanks to the course I took, my sharpness when it comes to texts and images has increased, and I’ve also learnt how to check them even more carefully. Because the sheer number of photos and videos Bellingcat showed as examples not matching the news was disturbing. As a journalist, you have a responsibility to properly check the information, as a lot of people reading your work may not have developed a critical way of thinking or may not have the tools or access to the original sources. And I also want people to be able to trust what I write. Mistakes will always be made – journalists are still people after all – but you have to keep them to a minimum and rectify any that slip through.


Bellingcat’s training courses are few and far between, and booked solid in no time. The investigative journalism platform made a name for itself in fact-checking and investigations using open sources. On September 7 of last year, Studium Generale hosted a lecture by Bellingcat at the Blauwe Zaal, which was packed out with interested TU/e students and staff.

In today’s world, there’s a huge amount of visual material travelling across the world at lightning speed. People take photos and videos of everything and post them online. Also, satellite images are available for free and there are lots of tools that can help you in your investigations. You can, for instance, verify if different photos are of the same subject. If there are several images, you can look at markings, forms, heights, ratios, etc. You should also always try to find a time indication in the room around the subject. If it concerns Big Ben this may be easy, but there is far less to go by when the image is of a desert. Even so, geolocation enables you to figure out a lot. Having said that, there are generally no quick fixes that would make intelligence agents or detectives jealous. More than anything, the training course teaches you to look at images differently, to the point that I can’t look at any photos in a ‘relaxed’ way any more: everything triggers my analysis mode.

Fake news up close

Back to the case of MH17. After extensively investigating satellite and other images, and comparing news items and investigations by several media, Bellingcat concluded that a Buk 332 missile system of the 53rd brigade stationed near Kursk in Russia left Donetsk (Ukrainian territory annexed by Russia) for Snizjne (Ukraine) on a trailer on 17 July 2014. In Snizjne the missile system was unloaded from the trailer and made its way to a nearby field using its own power. Just before 16:20 EEST, a surface-to-air missile was launched, impacting MH17 while the airplane was flying over Ukraine. Next morning, on 18 July 2014, the missile system was transported towards Russia from Luhansk.

What if Bellingcat hadn’t investigated this? Would Russia’s lies have been found out regardless? And should you always put complete trust in government reports? As ‘the west’, it’s of course easy to say ‘yes, but claims from non-free countries are more likely to constitute fake news’. Personally, I don’t think it’s that simple. Always exercise extreme care, if you’re a journalist at least. Trust is good, control is better.

We live in a world full of fake news and this sometimes worries me. What will people believe? And worse: will there be a time that I, as a journalist, can no longer tell fake from real? The training course I took gave me new hope. I’m sharper, I have a whole range of fact-checking options, I’m much better at recognizing AI images and I’m more confident in my work. Being fortunate enough to develop these knew skills I also feel the responsibility to use them to the best of my ability.

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