10th June 2015
By Stefanie Chernow

Protecting the People Behind the Stories That Keep Journalism Alive


Aidan White

Good sources are the lifeblood of journalism. If there were no people willing to talk to us or answer our questions, journalism could not survive. Journalists may take pride in the eloquence of their storytelling, but even the best reporters know they are only as good as their sources.

Protection of sources is the essential benchmark for ethical journalism; it is critical to creating an environment for watchdog reporting. It ensures people working inside the machines of political or corporate power can feel confident that if they blow the whistle on corruption they will not be victimised.

When protection is weak media report less on the scourge of hypocrisy and double-dealing in public life. Democracy inevitably suffers: government becomes complacent; the rule of law becomes arbitrary; and inequality in society increases.

The history of journalism, from the big stories of the past such as Watergate and Vietnam to today’s headlines over FIFA and revelations of global snooping by prying governments, is all about news stories shaped by courageous voices inside the structures of power.

Threats against journalists’ sources

Although journalism may be going through a rough patch, each year there are still thousands of stories being told by dogged reporters that routinely take down corrupt politicians and expose sleaze in business, but these days source protection is coming under more pressure.

The world may be better connected than ever, but new threats are emerging:

  • There is increased surveillance and monitoring of people’s communications by the state. Everyone, journalists and their sources included, are tracked and followed – their emails and Internet messages are easily accessible both to state and corporate agencies;
  • In the new age of terrorism and global criminal networks there is mandatory collection and retention of data, including billions of telephone and email conversations, which is ordered by the state in the name of anti-terrorism, combating corruption, or money-laundering;
  • The tools we use – mobile devices, smartphones and computers — are tracking devices that can identify who we are talking to and plot where we are at any time. They can be easily accessed by third parties with sophisticated tools with a chilling capacity to uncover our files and track our communications history;
  • There is less public respect for privacy, widespread abuse of the right to anonymity and fragile legal safeguards because of outdated laws which are more suited to the analogue rather than the digital age.

These issues are highlighted in a recent study conducted by UNESCO. For example, this app created by The Guardian demonstrates how easily a journalistic source can be identified in Australia, where the government passed data retention laws that force telecommunications companies to retain phone and web metadata. How long does it take you to find the source?

The preliminary findings of UNESCO study, launched at the World Association of Newspapers conference in Washington on June 2nd, finds that targeting sources triggers cover-ups and destruction of information, with new legal threats and sources of information running dry. Ultimately there is the threat of increased self-censorship.

As a result many media, already buffeted by economic crisis, are less inclined to take risks on stories that may lead to battles over source protection.

Privacy and Encryption

Some reporters, increasingly aware of the risks they face are using encryption or returning to pen and paper as essential tools of their trade. The face to face meeting is becoming more important than the virtual exchange.

We live in a world where most people have already traded in a measure of their own privacy in order to receive free services from Internet companies such as Google, Amazon, Facebook and YouTube.

Major corporations – as well as government security agencies – now collect, analyse and exploit freely the big data they collect on our everyday lives, whether it concerns the people in our social circles; our purchasing habits; and our likes and dislikes, whether in terms of fashion, sport or politics.

Given all this openness how do journalists make good on promises of anonymity for people who need it when we ourselves are under increasing scrutiny at home and in the office?

Investigative Reporting

The question was at the heart of discussions at the Investigative Reporters and Editors annual conference in Philadelphia on June 4th where more than 1,700 reporters and others turned up. Sessions included meetings with veteran news hound Seymour Hersh who passed on his own tips on source protection and the EJN joined a talk on the ethics of dealing with sources.

The discussion covered a range of challenges for media including dealing with politically-active insiders with their own axe to grind and people who want to sell information knowing that cash-strapped media will often be ready to pay for exclusives.

They discussed how politically-savvy people can manipulate media with carefully planned leaks and who can make even distinguished journalists look foolish when their cover is blown (Judith Miller, the hapless New York Times reporter who was fed exclusives over weapons of mass destruction and the Iraq war is one victim).

Protecting Sources

On the other hand people may lose their job if they are exposed for telling secrets that reveal corporate sleaze or malpractice. Others risk prosecution or threats to their physical safety for whistle-blowing. Just ask Edward Snowden who exposed the scandal of America’s global spying programme. He remains on the run and is now in exile in Moscow.

Very often sources can be vulnerable people, the victims of people trafficking for instance, or people who are victims of poverty, war and social dislocation. They may need support and guidance so that they don’t unintentionally put themselves further at risk through hasty or ill-judged disclosure.

Good reporters, conscious of their own power, will always protect people against themselves. In today’s world protection of sources has become one of the most urgent battlegrounds for the survival of public interest journalism.

That is why the Ethical Journalism Network is now working to develop a new global campaign to strengthen protection of sources in co-operation with some of the world’s leading investigative journalism groups.

We are taking soundings from investigative journalists around the world – this month in Philadelphia; next month we are in Brazil with the colleagues from Latin America’s major investigative network ABRAJI; and later in the year we will be organising a special session at the global investigative journalists’ event in Norway.

Our message is that even though times are hard, news media and journalists groups must take more action to strengthen source protection. We need more protected private space in newsrooms and we need to make sure journalists are better equipped to meet the challenges posed by digital communications, whether it is in verifying sources and fact-checking online information or the application of strong encryption systems for our own internal communications. A study by Pew Research Center for Journalism and Media published earlier this year says half of respondents in the survey haven’t adopted any digital security tools to protect their electronic devices, even though tools like Tor can be easily used.

There are also major questions over how to strengthen the public policy debate over shield laws and the right to anonymity and privacy. The public at large, and not just people in journalism, must be encouraged to push back against corporate and state surveillance and the deceptive handling of personal information and data.

A modest step in the right direction was taken in the United States with recent Congress decision to put civil liberties back on the political agenda and to clip the wings of the country’s National Security Agency after the revelations by Edward Snowden of its pervasive global snooping.

More immediate is a question that faces policymakers and judges everywhere as they try to administer legal safeguards for whistle-blowing – just who is a journalist in the age of open information? And who, therefore, is entitled to legal protection over the protection of sources?

The UNESCO study referred to earlier also makes the point that “acts of journalism” across all platforms should be protected. And this is an issue I’ve talked about before in the EJN discussion over who is considered a journalist these days.

In all we need more recognition in the public mind of the need for responsible, ethical communications and ethical journalism can be an inspiration for winning the argument in the open information space.

But for that to happen people inside journalism have to promote good media governance to ensure the people who need protection receive it and we have to train our reporters and editors to make them skilled in the art of negotiation with sources, to build confidence in those who genuinely need protection, and keeping at arm’s length the swindlers and con-artists who make juicy information available at a price.

Over the coming months we will plan to develop ways of helping media to restore and nourish this core value of journalism. Watch this space.

Photo: Flickr CC Simon Paterson
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