Since its launch in 2005, Google Earth has allowed us to explore the world without leaving our desks, making it one of the most useful image verification tools.
In the video above, we demonstrate how Google Earth not only helped to prove that a photograph was not from the location claimed by a Twitter user, but also how it helped to establish where the photograph was actually taken.
Unfortunately it is not yet possible to run an automated image search within Google Earth (matching up landmarks and landscape to pinpoint the exact position on a map) but providing you have a broad idea of the location and a few additional clues there are many quick and easy manual verification steps that you can apply.
In a separate resource we outline some of the most important clues that might be in a photo or video, such as topographic elements (like mountain ranges and rock clusters), identifiable buildings, signs, and free standing structures (like pylons and water towers). With these clues noted down, and the image or video saved to your desktop for quick reference, you can begin your search in Google Earth.
We recommend that you download the Pro version, which Google made available for free in 2015. The additional Tours and Mapping features are particularly useful for publishers as they allow you to show your work – perfect for transparency when reporting or debunking stories. Use the key GEPFREE when prompted during the download process.
Searching Google Earth
Google Earth offers a series of search and viewing options to help you explore a specific area. You can search by place name, lat/long coordinates or the name of a landmark. The ability to search by landmark is extremely useful when verifying eyewitness information because if a tweet mentions ‘Kio Towers’, for example, Google Earth will take you straight to the location in Madrid without you having to conduct additional research into their whereabouts.
Once you have zoomed in to the location you can explore the area in Street View or Ground Level View, and selecting ‘3D Buildings’, ‘Photos’ and ‘Terrain’ from the layer options will present all the different details and angles available.
In the video below we walk through the search techniques used in the case study featured at the top of the page.
As with most tools, it is worth familiarising yourself with each of the key features before you are required to use them in a breaking news situation. Navigation in Google Earth is quite straight forward, so try searching for Kio Towers, and then use the different zoom, pan and tilt techniques shown below to explore the towers from different angles and view points.
Another great feature of Google Earth is the ability to explore historical imagery. We have used the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan in the example below. The camp opened in 2011 and using the date slider it is possible to see how the camp appears and develops over time. Try this yourself using the coordinates 32°17’38.22”N 36°19’41.80″E.
If you are frequently required to verify photographs and videos from a specific location, it can be helpful to add a quick reference placemark in Google Earth. You can also use this feature to save any other images that you have from that location. This is particularly useful if you have images that feature identifiable landmarks or signage.
If you are working to verify images from a number of locations you can measure the distance between them using the ruler icon. You can often gather sufficient clues in Google Earth to establish the exact position of the person who captured a photograph so it is worth also measuring the distance between the photographer and the event they have captured to help when questioning the source.
For more advice and examples of using Google Earth, we recommend this case study by Christoph Koettl from the Verification Handbook on verifying a video of violent clashes between police and protesters in Cairo, and this article by Eliot Higgins on geolocation tools for journalists.