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Behind NYT’s video forensics timeline of Vegas shooting

October 31, 2017

In the hours and days immediately after a gunman opened fire from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, eyewitness video culled from social media played across cable news stations and network broadcasts, capturing the chaos and confusion of those trapped in the field of fire.

While those videos brought viewers a firsthand look at the mayhem, they didn’t do much to illuminate what actually happened on that violent night. An investigation followed, of course, but a killer with no apparent motive and an official timeline that has shifted several times have to date provided more questions than answers.

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Into that void of clear information stepped The New York Times video unit, producing a 10-minute video that producer Malachy Browne calls “perhaps the most complete picture to date of what happened.” Using a wealth of evidence from social media posts, police audio and bodycam footage, and reporting from the Times’s journalists, Browne and his colleagues identified 12 distinct bursts of gunfire and mapped out a timeline of what took place at the country music festival and in Stephen Paddock’s hotel room.

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Browne, who got his start in Irish media before stints as Storyful and Reported.ly, says that this brand of reporting, known as visual forensics, can support and clarify traditional journalism. “Traditional reporting relies of a certain set of sources,” he says. “The way that I consider visual forensics is that this is just information, it’s just a different type of information. They compliment each other and they supplement each other.”

The use of video forensics has become something that distinguishes the Times from its competitors. Pioneered by human rights organizations, media outlets like Storyful, and Bellingcat, the practice has yet to be fully embraced by mainstream outlets other than the Times. After Browne joined in the spring of 2016, he set out to build a team of producers, reporters, and editors who had the skills to sift through vast amounts of eyewitness evidence, utilize satellite mapping, and edit videos that help bring clarity to chaotic events. Previous efforts from his team have included an investigation into attacks by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s security detail on protesters in Washington, DC, and how Syria and Russia spun a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun.

The ubiquity of smartphones and widespread use of social media means that any event at which a crowd is gathered will provide a wealth of information for journalists who know where to look. “What’s been posted to social media platforms by millions of people everyday are, to quote Kath Viner, tiny ‘acts of journalism,’ as long as they’re accurate,” Browne tells CJR. “If we can draw on that and make sense of that, it greatly enhances what we’re already doing through traditional means.”

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After initially covering the Vegas shooting as a breaking news event, the Times’s video unit began gathering as much content as possible that would help them cover the story visually. Early reports featured dozens of videos from the scene, but Browne says, “unless you had structure around it, really all you were seeing was varying degrees of chaos and repeated scenes of people fleeing or being injured or screams.”

The Times team gathered more than an hour of footage, which they plotted onto a timeline and annotated by length and pattern of each gunfire burst. “Every one of those bursts had its own fingerprint: the rate of fire, the gaps in the fire, the duration of the burst, and the interval between that one and the next burst of fire,” Browne says. “By taking that audio fingerprint we were able to line up, to the second, burst upon burst over 30 videos that encompass the over 10 minutes of the attack.”

Once a timeline was established, the team was able to overlay police scanner audio and incorporate reporting from other journalists about the response from authorities to the shooting. When they had questions about the gunshots, the video journalists turned to journalists on staff who are former Marines to help explain what they were hearing.

After the Times published the video, Browne posted a series of tweets walking through his process from the initial information-gathering stage to the editing procedures. He says that he views educating other journalists to be part of his job. “People appreciate showing behind the scenes: how it was made and the reporting that went into it. It’s technical reporting but there are a lot of open source tools that are available to people to also do this type of investigation…It’s transparent reporting.”

The final product is unlike anything produced by competing outlets. Plenty of unanswered questions remain. But in 10 minutes of video, The New York Times produced a chilling second-by-second account of what actually happened amidst the chaos. “There’s a journalistic value in that, especially in the absence of that information from officials to this point,” Brown says. “It probably is the most complete picture right now, given the evidence that we have.”

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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.