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Anonymity technologies in investigative journalism: a tool for inspiring trust in sources

M Biscop, D Décary-Hétu

Anonymity technologies in investigative journalism: a tool for inspiring trust in sources

Investigative journalism in Canada lacks the adoption of anonymity tools, leaving journalists exposed to surveillance. Anonymity technologies are typically adopted reactively rather than proactively. The use of cybersecurity tools by journalists depends on the assessment of espionage risk, source awareness, and source ability. Anonymity technologies contribute to the professional identity of investigative journalists and can motivate sources to come forward. These technologies play a role in defining roles, building trust, and consolidating relationships.

This study focuses on the meaning journalists attribute to the use of these technologies in their relationships with their sources. It involved interviews with 14 investigative journalists in Canada, representing both national and provincial media outlets, whether publicly or privately owned. The participants had diverse levels of experience, ranging from newcomers in the field to seasoned professionals with decades of investigative journalism expertise.

The interviews suggest that anonymity technologies contribute toward the construction of the professional identity of investigative journalists, both collectively and individually. Anonymity technologies are both fully incorporated into and reinforce the strategies of journalists and are instrumentalized to develop perceptions in several respects. The use of anonymity technologies suggests to potential sources that an investigative journalist could be under surveillance, and producing disturbing content about powerful figures.

Although anonymity technologies have not seen widespread adoption among journalists, some do not grasp their advantages or resort to them out of necessity. On the flip side, there are also journalists who actively advocate for and endorse the utilization of anonymity technologies.

The interactionist perspective allows us to understand that these technologies, constituting a means of protection against the risks of espionage, are instrumental in defining and consolidating each person’s roles and in building a relationship of trust and proximity and complicity with the aim of gaining their loyalty, either at the level of social groups or in terms of the interpersonal relationships between journalists and their sources. They participate fully in the construction of the collective and individual professional identities of investigative journalists.

This paper explores the strategies Canadian journalists are using to increase their power with confidential sources, specifically focusing on encryption technologies.
Investigative journalism has been affected by globalization, technology, and neoliberalism, leading to the use of anonymity tools to establish professional identity and maintain power dynamics between journalists and their sources.
It suggests further research should be done from the perspective of sources to understand the dynamics and strategies used by journalists. The study also highlights the importance of analyzing the impact of computer tools on journalistic practices and the relationship with sources in the context of "big data" surveys.

Biscop, M., & Décary-Hétu, D. (2022). Anonymity technologies in investigative journalism: a tool for inspiring trust in sources. Journalism Practice, 1-22.

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