Winning the Trust of Sources – On and Offline

Session notes from the Investigative Practice Series

Chair: Stephen Grey

Panellists: Ed Moloney
Irish journalist and writer of A Secret History of the IRA, Voices From the Grave and Paisley – From Demagogue To Democrat? and co-producer of the documentaries Voices from the Grave and I Dolores

Gabriella Coleman
Anthropologist and author of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous

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The slow, careful art of soliciting a trustworthy source is one of the most exciting and overlooked skills in the investigative journalist’s toolkit. But how does it work when the source can only be reached via digital means, or presents only an anonymous identity in the first place?
In this seminar, Investigative Practice examined how the traditional art of cultivating a source works where trust must be won remotely – and whether practices from the digital age can inform traditional methods.

"There is a risk that when you work in one area for a long time that you can be accused of being an informant."

Gabriella Coleman

Online sources

Gabriella Coleman was certainly accused of being an FBI informant during her research work using Internet Relay Chat (IRC), a messaging method used by Anonymous activists among others. It’s also worth remembering though, that when working with sources and especially in the areas of computer hacking or national security, it’s likely that some of the people you are talking to are informants themselves. Before Sabu was revealed to be an informant, he sought out Coleman and was fishing for information on other sources.

Though she didn’t know that he was an informant, she was well aware of the possibility that he, like any of her contacts, could be. It’s important to silo information between people, to keep information on different sources separate and ultimately protect those you are working with.

Sources often have their own agendas, which is an issue that journalists have to be aware of and navigate. Journalists have to be careful what emails or information they accept online. Coleman was offered the Stratfor emails in 2011 after they had been acquired by Anonymous activists but she didn’t accept them. They were then published as the Global Intelligence files by Wikileaks in 2012.

Coleman has written about the lessons around cultivating online sources that can be learned from the ways in which journalists interacted with and reported on Anonymous in its early days. There are some key points to remember:

Get stories right and put in the time to learn both technology and cultural norms

The hackers at Anonymous felt misunderstood by a lot of the mainstream press. Online sources are generally very aware and potentially critical of different journalists and their work. They will often choose which journalists to go to so it’s important to get stories right and behave ethically.

Treat sources and subjects ethically

The journalists who were the most successful with Anonymous were those who dedicated time and effort and were willing to learn: both the cultural norms and the tools, such as IRC.
Remember that sources are people!

Ensure you know (and are seen to know) how to use encryption technology responsibly

Digital communications can be risky but when used well can be secure. Through these means, hackers can get information to journalists safely, but journalists need to protect themselves as well.

It’s easy to get a false sense of security when using secure communication methods, such as encryption. Journalists should trust encryption as a tool, but not their own implementation of it. But security is a process, not an outcome. Digital security knowledge needs to be constantly refreshed because it is constantly changing. But never over-trust the tools and don’t ever get cocky about your security set-up.

A hybrid of offline and online communication is a good model – balancing security and convenience. It’s important to compartmentalise communications with different sources because otherwise if one source’s identity is revealed, then others are also put at risk.

Sometimes digital contact is inevitable and journalists must also consider their sources’ implementation of the tools to secure this contact. The people within Anonymous whose identities were revealed made mistakes themselves, and sources can sometimes compromise themselves even through the initial contact, such as emailing a journalist from a work account. If you are worried that a potential source has already compromised themselves in contacting you, the best way to deal with it is to ignore certain requests until you can communicate with that source in a more secure way. There are also certain countermeasures that can be taken against surveillance of communications with sources, such as obfuscation. For example, if your phone records are available to authorities, it can help to make a lot of phone calls in order to make metadata more difficult to analyse.

Benefits and opportunities of online sources

While there are many reasons to be careful of digital communication with sources, it’s important to remember that digital communication tools do present opportunities that didn’t exist in the pre-digital age.

Case study: Citizen’s Commission to Expose the FBI

Seven activists who broke into an FBI office and took away many files and passed some to journalists. The COINTELPRO scandal followed from this as those journalists used FOI to obtain further information. Those activists were never charged, they were only identified once the statute of limitations had expired, but they did take enormous risks to get those files out and into the hands of journalists.

There are now much less physically risky ways to obtain these kinds of documents. But the question of what you can do for protection is still very important.

When talking to anonymous sources online, documents become even more important because it’s harder to verify who the person is and what they are telling you.

Offline sources

During the Troubles, any sort of communication that wasn’t face to face was a huge risk. Even a phone call could be risky, because there was surveillance being carried out by both of the British intelligence agencies as well as the IRA. You had to assume that phones had been tapped and someone was listening.

The stakes were so high that it took a long time to build trust with sources. It took old-fashioned methods of lots of face-to-face meetings and lots of patience.

Ed Moloney had to break a big story to demonstrate to other sources that he was trustworthy. He had spoken to the supplier of weapons that killed the lawyer Pat Finucane. He only published nine years later when his source was arrested and charged. Scotland Yard demanded Moloney’s material, but he resisted. This showed he was willing to fight to protect his sources and that went a long way towards winning him the trust of others who then became willing to speak.

"In Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the idea of contacting a source over the internet would be sheer madness."

Ed Moloney

Journalists need to be similarly careful with any sort of digital communications, especially in dangerous countries such as Iraq or Mexico. In these sorts of places, it is also a good idea to use taxis rather than a personal vehicle.

Meeting a source in person is also useful for putting a face to a name and working out whether they are trustworthy. It is always a two-way relationship, so it’s actually just as important a process for the source to work out if they trust the journalist. Every source is different though, so it’s necessary to meet them and gradually build up an instinct for what works and what doesn’t. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean face-to-face meetings. Chatting to someone online a lot can in some cases serve the same purpose.

In the same way as you can build trust with online sources by building an intimate knowledge of a subject or subculture, writing about a subject for a long time is also a good way to cultivate in-person sources – because, provided you write about the subject ethically and accurately, they will start to come to you.

Where do we draw the lines?

The New York Times has a policy that sources shouldn’t be friends, but in many cases that can be impossible. Having a close relationship with long-term sources can also help you understand their motivations and possible agendas.

However, there are some potentially difficult dilemmas involved in these relationships. It may well be crossing a line to warn a criminal source of a police investigation or teaching them techniques to hide their online presence or communications if they are using these techniques for criminal acts. Moloney, though, would argue that if a source's physical safety is in danger then a journalist has a moral duty to warn them if possible.

Journalists also have a responsibility to think about whether it’s in a source’s best interest to disclose sensitive information. “Do you really want to tell me this?” It can be surprising how ready some people are to trust journalists, even when told that the journalists cannot control the headline or who will read the information they pass over.

If you pay a source for information though, that information is tainted.

10 tips for source cultivation, Stephen Grey
  1. “Dress like them” – make sources feel comfortable by entering their world, respecting their values and acting like them.
  2. Protect them and yourself.
  3. Use gatekeepers – the best sources introduce you to others and can vouch that you’re trustworthy.
  4. Make a legend – your reputation is crucial so be known, prove yourself, become an expert.
  5. Shun motives – you can’t get into the mind of every source. Verify what you can but there is a limit to what is possible.
  6. Avoid making people lie – don’t push sources on topics they aren’t happy to talk about. Once they have lied to you once, it becomes a lot easier.
  7. Take time – don’t look rushed, lean and hungry, because people won’t trust you. Invest your time and show willing.
  8. Make friends – get to know your sources so you share common experiences.
  9. Work isn’t everything – entertain people, get to know them. Professional relationships bring less reliable information because sources want something, but if they know you they are more likely to give you information without wanting something in return.
  10. Show something of yourself – gossip, give a little to get something back.

Some additions were suggested:

  • Get to know anthropologists in your area and earn their trust as they will have a good grasp of the issues and can make the best gatekeepers.
  • Cultivate a strong liver first...

This discussion was part of the Investigative Practice series at the Logan Symposium, Oct 2018