This piece is part of API’s Research Review series, which highlights academic research that could be relevant and useful to the news industry. We also hope that this series will spark ideas among academics with an interest in researching the news.

Today’s journalists owe so much to modern technologies like social media, mobile apps, digital recording devices and cloud storage space — all of which can make reporting easier. However, many of those same technologies are now associated with potential security risks.

Mass-surveillance stories like the whistle-blowing saga of Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency shine a spotlight on data security issues for practicing journalists. Many journalists now take steps like using data encryption and having confidentiality discussions with their sources alongside traditional reporting and writing processes.

This article sheds light on how journalists prevent and manage potential security risks, outlining shifts in their routines that could be helpful for other journalists and drawing attention to the growing unease around the potential for government oversight.

In “The Effects of Mass Surveillance on Journalists’ Relations With Confidential Sources,” Dr. Stephenson Waters, currently an assistant professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, conducted seven in-depth interviews with American national security journalists. Waters examined how the journalists have adapted their daily routines in the face of government surveillance concerns, as well as how journalists seek to ensure digital security as they find and interview potential sources and conduct research for their articles. These journalists regularly handle confidential information, which increases the potential risk for both them and their sources if that information is digitally exposed.

The more technologically savvy journalists are, the more successfully they tend to adopt tools and practices to prevent the risk of surveillance.

Waters found that the journalists interviewed have changed their routines significantly, adding extra steps in the reporting process to protect themselves and their sources from government surveillance. They’ve adopted digital security tools including PGP email encryption when communicating with sources and using SecureDrop to share information securely. They try not to use their mobile phones when communicating with their most at-risk sources, and they avoid using social media to communicate with sources in general. On some occasions, the journalists avoid digital communication altogether, in order to limit the potential for surveillance. Still others self-censored when communicating online and tried not to share any personal information.

However, many digital security tools come with a learning curve for both the journalists — many of whom have trained themselves on how to use them — and their sources. The more technologically savvy the journalists are, the more successfully they tend to adopt tools and practices to prevent the risk of surveillance, Waters found in his study published in Digital Journalism in September 2017.

Notably, Waters observed that Snowden’s story increased journalists’ awareness of the threats of surveillance and inspired them to become more vigilant. They acknowledged that mass surveillance has made their work harder, which in turn has made them more focused on ensuring the security of their digital communication.

According to Waters, “the awareness of possibly being surveilled is consistently on their minds.”

The largest professional concern for U.S. journalists covering national security is the potential damage to the relationships between them and their sources. Journalists fear that sources might become less willing to speak due to fears about surveillance from the NSA and other governmental bodies. They worry that sources, and in particular key whistleblowers like Snowden, might not contact them with important information if the threat of surveillance grows. And they’re concerned that unless journalists learn how to protect their data, exposure would have negative consequences.

However, Waters noted a surprising factor that benefits journalists as they consider these risks: the increasing speed of journalism today. Because news can be published online so quickly, the time for surveilling journalistic investigations is shortened, reducing the risk that the information will be censored before it can be made public.


Waters, Stephenson. The Effects of Mass Surveillance on Journalists’ Relations With Confidential Sources Journalism Practice. Digital Journalism.

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