Satellite data resources for investigative journalism

 Satellite data resources for investigative journalism

Wildfires, floods, volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, mass evacuations from cities and countries, illegal forestry and fishing, war damage, ships stuck in critical waterways… We have all seen many examples of disasters from space. Many of these stories come from investigative journalism using images from space.

Investigative Journalism Call: Support Ukraine’s Defence from Space

Images from satellites provide great visual support for human stories on the ground. They provide us with the big picture, the context in which tragedies happen. They also often provide clues on how to manage or solve these tragedies, or find the underlying causes. In case of floods, wildfires, landslides and other natural disasters space data helps recovery specialists and governments to send support to where it is most urgently needed.

Images and maps from space are gradually becoming an integral part of stories on the ground. An increasing number of journalists knows how to find these images to enrich their stories, but a much bigger number do not. It is one of the tasks of the global Earth Observation community to help bring this information to the media. Not only provide them with ready-to-publish images and graphs, but also provide them with the tools to easily and quickly access this data themselves, where and when they feel it is most appropriate to do so.

Examples of satellite data in journalism

Especially over the last couple of years we have seen several great examples of the use of satellite data for journalism. Assistant Editor of Geospatial World Aditya Chaturvedi wrote a piece on this in his article ‘Major investigative exposes by satellite imagery over the years‘ in 2019.

Before-and-after satellite imagery showing the destruction of Aleppo (source: Geospatial World)


One of the pioneers of investigative journalism using satellite data is Bellingcat. Not only has this collective of journalists revealed many ‘hidden’ developments all around the world using satellite imagery, but they also post very useful ‘how to’ guides for fellow journalists and citizen reporters.

One of their earliest guides, and still a great introduction on the use of space data for journalists, is their blog post ‘Verification and geolocation tricks and tips with Google Earth‘, revealing tips on how to use one of the most accessible space data resources for investigations, ground truthing and story verification.

The how-to ‘guides’ section on the Bellingcat website can be considered one of the best training resources for investigative journalists, so it is recommended to have a look. They also do (did?) workshops on their methods, which you can find under ‘workshops‘ on their website.

Images of Afar Airport in Ethiopia showing possible drones (source: Bellingcat)

Geospatial World

In an interesting blog post ‘Journalism from the sky‘ in Geospatial World in 2020 the author acknowledges that using satellite data for journalism is a relatively new application area: “Looking back 10 years; this kind of noise wouldn’t have been possible. However due to democratization of satellite technology and entry of private companies in the field of space, it’s now possible to have access to high spatio-temporal data at a very minimum cost and then come out with interesting investigative stories.”

Global Investigative Journalism Network

Based on a repost of the Geospatial World publication, the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) collected a great resource for finding and using satellite images. Imagery, as one expert put it, “is independent of the official line of thinking.”

The article further claims that “Among other benefits, images are great for showing change over time, such as retreating shorelines, growing islands or lost vegetation. Examining images can complement other research, possibly providing corroborating evidence.”

The it lists several dozens of great resources for journalists to get acquainted with satellite imagery, where to find it and how to legally use it in editorial work and publications.

Find this great list of resources here.

Caspian Sea (source: NASA on Unsplash, via GIJN)

GIS Geography on using Copernicus

One of the resources mentioned in the GIJN article is a GIS Geography blog post on ‘How to download free Sentinel satellite data‘, which has the great advantage of being freely accessible to anyone.

In addition to this blog post, GIS Geography offers great tools to learn GIS and Geography.

Tips by a satellite imagery specialist

Well-known satellite imagery ‘hobbyist’ Pierre Markuse was also early to understand the power and relevance of satellite images for news stories. Pierre is well known for his revealing social media posts on natural disasters, often posting detailed photos of volcanic eruptions, floods, wildfires and ice melt before official sources post about it.

Based on his experience and knowledge, he wrote a great ‘Satellite Image Guide for Journalists and Media‘, as early as 2018, which can still be considered a perfect starting point for reporters looking to ground themselves in the world of space data.

His great blog post aimed at journalists starts with: “So you would like to use a satellite image in your article and you would like to explain it to your viewers? Here is a short guide covering some of the most frequently asked questions and giving some general explanations on satellite images. It by no means covers all aspects, as there are far too many types of satellite images, but should give you a good start to find out more on your own and maybe motivate you to create your own images, which has become quite easy and quick even with no prior knowledge of it.”

Different colour representations of the same area (source: Pierre Markuse)

In this guide Pierre not only writes about where and how to get the images, but he also explains the different spectral bands that you can use to reveal details that natural colour photos don’t show, like heat sources in infrared, or specific bandwidths to detect vegetation.

Is satellite data free from bias?

In 2019 Pierre Markuse wrote a guest blog about why newsrooms need people with expertise in Remote Sensing, arguing that with more satellite images finding their way into media publications, which means more information for the audience, this may become prone to more false (or even falsified) information too. After all, what the satellite sees may be unbiased, but what the image processor sees may be subject to unintentional – or intentional – bias.

Funding cross-border investigative journalism in Europe

The Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) fund supports cross-border investigations of public interest in Europe. In 2021, IJ4EU will provide €1.1 million in grant funding to watchdog journalism, along with practical, editorial and legal support.

Check out all info and application forms for these grants here.

As satellite imagery is cross-border by nature, projects supported by space data are a great target for this type of funding!

Remco Timmermans

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