Nuclear Weapons

Research on OSINT Ethics in Reporting Resonates as Russia-Ukraine War Erupts

March 2022


Journalists and analysts covering international security say ethical dilemmas are common in their work.

What do analysts and journalists consider in thinking through ethical practices and challenges when using open-source intelligence (OSINT) to track and report sensitive international security developments? In early 2020, the Stanley Center began working with the Ethical Journalism Network to understand their perspectives, leading to a recent report on a topic that is now regularly making news, as the role of OSINT has grown even more visible with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In a story in August 2021 about the rise of open-source intelligence, The Economist observed “The intelligence world is thus being democratized, a development which is challenging governments, reshaping diplomacy and chipping away at the very idea of secrecy.” Shortly after Russia’s invasion in February 2022, a Buzzfeed article described how OSINT investigators are uncovering information about events on the ground in Ukraine in real time.

In their reporting, Aldhous and Miller go a step further, calling attention to the ethical dimensions of the work of OSINT investigation. While there is no question that OSINT can play a constructive role in the reporting of accurate, verifiable information in a crisis, OSINT analyst Melissa Hanham notes that there are also risks when OSINT interacts with conflict dynamics. In the article, Hanham says that when thinking about whether and when to share sensitive open-source analysis, “Now we are moving into an era of ‘Should I do this, could I do more harm than good?'”

These are the sorts of questions at the heart of Feeling the Burden, a report published with the Ethical Journalism Network, drawing from 28 interviews with analysts and journalists who shared stories of ethical dilemmas they have faced in their work with OSINT and how they have traversed them.

On the minds of journalists and analysts we interviewed were questions like “Do you have it right? Does having it right help or hurt the situation?” One practitioner explained, “You can ask your source, ‘Is this okay? Can we do this?’ You can ask the same questions internally. But it doesn’t change the reality that a wrong choice could put someone in danger.”

In a recent event organized by the Leadership, Ethics and Practice (LEAP) Initiative at George Washington University, moderated by LEAP director Christopher Kojm (former Chairman of the US National Intelligence Council), the Center’s program officer for journalism and media, Devon Terrill, and program officer for nuclear weapons, Ben Loehrke, discussed what they learned from interviews and conversations informing the report. They detailed the various challenges, blind spots, and systematic breakdowns within ethical practices that both journalists and analysts face. In their discussion, they pointed out the many layers of ethical considerations that analysts and journalists are wrestling with when working with open-source information. The community of practice seems to be increasingly aware of the challenges, and they are coping as best they can.

Analysts and journalists have many shared interests, but there are sometimes tensions in their collaborations. There may be unchecked assumptions that the other party is thinking through risks of harm and unintended consequences. Without enough communication and in the rush to publish, processes of ethical decision-making can get pushed aside.

Looking at opportunities moving forward, analysts and journalists using OSINT indicate a need for more training, guidance, support, and coordination on ethical practices. Feeling the Burden recommends ways for practitioners, organizations, and policymakers to have more candid conversation about open-source ethics as a first step to collectively identifying bottom-up solutions to common challenges.

In the chaotic information environment that exists today, and with a violent conflict underway in Ukraine, it is striking—and encouraging—that OSINT analysts and journalists are turning their attention to the ethical implications of their work.

In a recent story in VICE, journalist Matthew Gault reported on how OSINT investigators, like Eliot Higgins and others working with Bellingcat, were persistently debunking Russian disinformation in real time in the lead up to the conflict in Ukraine. In the article, Higgins acknowledges the ethical responsibilities of this work and tweeted about Feeling the Burden, calling it “important for anyone involved with open source investigation.”

From the stories we have heard, stakeholders seem to be in the early stages of working to enhance ethical practices. In the fog of war and in a fast-moving news cycle, it is notable that journalists and analysts are beginning to have open conversations about ethical challenges in their work. Every conversation is a step in the right direction.

To learn more, read the report summary and the full report about OSINT ethics, Feeling the Burden.