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

Published onSep 09, 2022
Anonymity technologies in investigative journalism: a tool for inspiring trust in sources


Investigative journalism, like other sectors of social life, has undergone significant changes due to globalization, technological progress, and the Western world’s turn to neoliberalism. This context has facilitated the emergence of new practices within the profession, particularly new modes of communication between journalists and their confidential sources. This qualitative study focuses on the meaning journalists attribute to the use of these technologies in their relationships with their sources. Anonymity tools are being used to build the professional identity of investigative journalism (both collectively and individually) and therefore constitute a resource in the power relationship between journalists and their sources, a relationship that is not fundamentally changed by their use.

Keywords: Investigative journalism, anonymity technologies, journalistic sources, surveillance.


Investigative journalism is a subgenre of journalism that is characterized by both the depth of its research and the amount of time employers are willing to allow for this research. Its purpose is to seek the truth (De Burgh, 2008), even if its findings run counter to the interests of powerful individuals, corporations, or governments and places the journalists themselves at risk (MacFadyen, 2008). Investigative journalism differs from other forms of journalism in several respects. First, by virtue of exposing harms in the name of the public interest, it can be said to serve a key societal function (Waisbord, 2001). Second, the information it exposes has deliberately been kept secret by individuals, corporations, or governments (Deschênes, 1985). Finally, it often takes advantage of modern digital tools such as algorithms and big data (Hamilton and Turner, 2009) to correlate large amounts of information, which, in turn, allows it to connect the dots in an investigation (Gray et al., 2012; Howard, 2014).

Investigative journalism in Western countries has not escaped the financial pressures related to the decline in news media outlet (NMO) revenue in recent decades. The expansion of capitalist interests and investments in NMOs has engendered a culture defined by higher productivity and profitability (Lemieux, 2001) as well as an increase in the number of media, which, in turn, has led to greater competition and a perpetual concern with pleasing the public (Demers, 2003). Alongside this, beginning in the 2000s, the emergence and growth of internet giants has also undermined the media’s economic model by siphoning off advertising revenues (Starkman, 2014). These structural changes have resulted in a shift toward more commercial editorial policies for NMOs (Deane, 2005; Neveu, 2013). Journalists are now expected to publish their work in a multitude of different media formats, which leaves them less time to conduct the actual journalistic work. Both the shift to a commercial model and the dependence of NMOs on powerful financial institutions has brought about significant shortcomings in investigations, most notably, the failure to anticipate the 2008 financial crisis (Starkman, 2014). Such failures have generated a lack of trust in NMOs and undermined their image as the public’s “watchdog” that holds the political and financial elites to account (Halimi, 2005).

In response to these aforesaid changes in NMOs, some investigative journalists have left to take positions with non-profit organizations and research centres affiliated with universities (Hamilton, 2016). Such moves afford them the freedom to research and investigate with fewer economic constraints. Investigative journalists have also enthusiastically adopted modern digital tools, which have democratized access to, and the analysis of, massive databases (Flew et al., 2012). These tools not only create new opportunities but introduce new investigative methods, which, in turn, make it possible for a single journalist to analyze global datasets. Moreover, globalization and technology have brought about a new form of collaborative and transnational investigative journalism that allows the media greater scope for their investigations as well as letting them tackle contemporary issues in a more holistic manner (Gearing, 2014). Last but not least, the backdrop of high levels of competition among different media (Demers, 2003) as well as a general lack of trust in traditional institutions (Rosanvallon, 2006) has given investigative journalism a new lease of life, insofar as “scoops” allow the media involved to escape the “circular circulation of information” (Bourdieu, 1998) and distinguish them from the competition. They also confirm journalism’s role as a counter-power, thus helping it regain legitimacy with the public.

Although vastly beneficial to journalists conducting investigations, the development of digital technologies has also enabled more sophisticated surveillance and espionage systems that target those same journalists (Mills, 2019). The aim of this surveillance is to both learn about investigations before they are published and identify the sources of those investigations. Fear over detection may impact upon sources’ desire and willingness to participate in investigations, not to mention leading to self-censorship by journalists themselves (Jamil, 2020; 2021). To counter surveillance, journalists now have a vast array of anonymity technologies at their disposal, which is defined as any software or hardware that helps an internet user maintain a level of privacy by protecting against monitoring and identification (Li et al., 2013). Little research has been conducted on the role of these technologies, their adoption rate by both journalists and their sources, and their overall impact on investigative journalism. Given that the threat of surveillance restricts the reach of investigative journalism, it is more important than ever to understand, firstly, how investigative journalists are using anonymity technologies, and secondly, whether their use shifts the balance of power between journalists and those that monitor them. This paper draws from interviews with 14 Canadian investigative journalists and discusses anonymity technologies in the context of investigative journalism.

The first part of the paper reviews the current state of knowledge on investigative journalism sources as well as anonymity technology in the context of investigative journalism. The second part of the paper describes our sample of journalists and introduces our theoretical framework. The third part presents the content of our interviews. Finally, we discuss the impact of anonymity technology on investigative journalism and consider how it is likely to shape future investigations.

Investigative journalism sources

The relationship between journalists and their sources is founded on trust (Legavre, 2014). It is a codified trust based on both the more or less implicit codes and standards developed by professional groups and subgroups of journalists and the conviction that journalists will respect these codes (Hubé, 2014). By claiming membership of a group, a journalist implicitly assures a source that the group’s ethical standards will be respected, insofar as failing to abide by these codes could lead to their expulsion from the group. Moreover, any journalist who fails to respect these rules calls the integrity of the entire group into question.

Generally speaking, journalists and their sources are interdependent, which can lead to a particular representation of the world. Sources provide evidence, making them central players in the construction of information. Journalists select which sources they use (Carlson, 2009), while the sources who gain access to journalists are often those whose information allows journalists to present events from a particular perspective (Molotch and Lester, 1974). In practice, journalists often have long-term relationships with their sources.

Journalists use a variety of sources. Confidential sources are those whose identity is redacted by the journalists in their publication to protect their source against retribution of any kind (Fahy, 2009). Anonymous sources, on the other hand, are sources whose identity is hidden even from the journalists themselves. Vetting information from an anonymous source is much more difficult since the reliability of the source cannot be ascertained (McGregor et al., 2015). The profile of confidential and anonymous sources has evolved over time. In the 1980s, one of the (often unspoken) rules was to use only confidential sources that worked in recognized institutions (Wulfemeyer, 1982). This practice was gradually reversed in the 1980s as the credibility of governmental sources began to be called into question (Riffe, 1980), although they remain the preferred source of information (Carlson, 2009). Until recently, newsrooms sought to limit the use of confidential and anonymous sources (Saint-Dizier, 1985; Wulfemeyer, 1982; Duffy & Williams, 2011). This occurred in light of several high-profile incidents which called into question the credibility of stories based on confidential sources. Most famously, Janet Cooke, a Washington Post journalist, fabricated the central figure upon which her report was based and then pretended that his confidentiality had to be preserved to protect him. Incidents like this increased the public’s distrust of stories based on anonymous sources (Eason, 1986), leading to stricter editorial rules and greater editorial vigilance over journalistic practices (Wulfemeyer, 1982). The excessive use of confidential and anonymous sources by journalists has also been denounced by those in the profession (Johnston, 1987). The majority of confidential sources who have ongoing relationships with journalists and provide information in the public interest are often prepared to discuss confidentiality agreements that would reveal their identity to select individuals while maintaining their public anonymity (Gassaway, 1988).

Because of surveillance, and in some instances overt threats and harassment, individuals are hesitant to publicly disclose information to journalists and instead opt to become either confidential or anonymous whistleblowers. Whistleblowers are knowledgeable insiders that draw attention to wrongdoing inside a group, institution, or organization (Gunsalus et al., 2008). Some whistleblowers belong to private companies, such as, for example, Frances Haugen who revealed many wrongdoings at social media giant Facebook (Mac, 2021). Others come from public and military organizations, such as Edward Snowden (Verble, 2014), David Weber (Taibbi, 2012) and Reality Winner (Philipps, 2018).

The use of confidential and anonymous sources raises several issues, such as, among other things, the accountability of sources or how information is presented. Sources who are granted anonymity are exempt from responsibility for their remarks and may articulate a discourse that they would otherwise not present publicly (Bernier, 1994). Media coverage of certain events can thus be warped by anonymization. Moreover, anonymization allows politicians to make public information that is of questionable value to the public interest, while allowing private actors the opportunity to cast judgment upon public figures without exposing themselves (Rudnicki, 2007). The question of responsibility for sources also leads to questions about the kind of information being presented. Confidential and anonymous sources can provide access to information that allows the media to present more diverse perspective on issues, thus helping journalists develop a more analytical approach to ideas that have been given a particular shape by institutional sources (Blankenburg, 1992). However, they can also lead to presenting material from a subjective perspective that undermines the objective nature of journalistic work (Stenvall, 2008). In a survey of media coverage of the war in Iraq in eleven different countries, the use of confidential sources coincided with presenting the war in a more positive manner (Hatcher, 2010).

Anonymity technologies and investigative journalism

These issues are not the only ones modern investigative journalists face. One of the pillars of journalistic ethics is the protection of sources, and, indeed, respect for this ethical principle helps to create trusting relationships with sources (Townend & Danbury, 2017). Journalists must therefore do everything in their power to protect the identity of their sources. Recent developments in communication technologies have, however, made possible the mass surveillance of citizens and, more specifically, investigative journalists (Lee, 2013; Bradshaw, 2015; Tréguer, 2019). Journalists' communications with their sources are now more likely to be spied on, which, in turn, changes the way they work, undermines their role as a counter-power in society and threatens democracy (Khorana & Henrichsen, 2017). The Snowden affair in particular has led journalists to question whether they can legitimately claim to be able to protect their sources (Kunelius et al., 2017). Eide (2019) refers to the aftermath of the Snowden affair as having a chilling effect on free expression.

Media companies may also be hesitant to disclose information about sensitive government programs (Pen American Center, 2013), and opt to have their articles reviewed by security agencies before publication (Paul, 2019). This had led to the creation of more independent news outlets such as The Intercept which operate under different rules than most traditional media. On a more personal level, Mills (2019) posits that the impact of surveillance also operates at the individual and psychological level, with investigative journalists increasingly living in a state of fear and paranoia that is detrimental to their wellbeing. Journalists living in liberal democracies report fear over or actual experiences of physical and electronic surveillance as well as harassment at the border. Those operating in more despotic regimes also experience death threats and criminal investigations leading to lengthy prison sentences. These contribute to the chilling effect of surveillance and give rise to the need for more anonymity technologies. There is, however, no lack of hope according to Lyon (2015). While nation states have turned into surveillance states, these are in no way, shape or form omniscient, and some freedom remains in even the most despotic regimes. However, this optimism is not shared by Waters (2018), who describes journalists as being under siege from mass surveillance programs.

In response, journalists are adapting their practices to secure their information, communications and therefore their sources in this new context (Bradshaw, 2017; Kleberg, 2015). The different technologies used to protect sources should aim to reduce the time between disclosure and publication to prevent censorship, increase the costs of identifying sources and facilitate trust building between sources and journalists (Ahmed-Rangers et al., 2020). As Kleberg (2015) discusses, many technologies are available to protect journalists’ sources. Virtual private networks (VPN) are encrypted tunnels which protect the content of communications from being spied on. Although they provide security, they fail to provide anonymity as both the source and destination of communications can easily be traced. The Tor network builds on this foundation to offer privacy and anonymity to communications (Dingledine et al., 2004). It routes internet traffic through a series of relays which hide both the identities of the parties involved in the communication and the content of the communication. The Tor network is commonly used to host websites and communication platforms (McCoy et al., 2008). Although ever-more commercial services are integrating these aspects of privacy into their communications (Endeley, 2018), anonymity continues to be an issue for individuals communicating online outside of the Tor network.

Kleberg (2015) also refers to encryption to protect data stored in hard drives and cell phones. TrueCrypt software, for example, encrypts files in such a way that makes it impossible for even the most powerful governments to extract information from them. These technologies do not, however, guarantee protection from surveillance. Indeed, design flaws in encryption products mislead users into a false sense of security that can lead to successful attacks against their privacy and anonymity (Whitten & Tygar, 1999; Ruotti et al., 2016). Computer hardware manufacturers, under pressure from governments, can also insert surveillance software into their devices that activates microphones or cameras, or monitors the keystrokes entered into a device (Robertson & Riley, 2018). The same software can also be installed on a device remotely, with cell phones in particular being a key target (Kirchgaessner, 2021). Many commercial entities also provide custom spyware – a specific type of malware that collects a user’s personal information without authorization (Boldt et al., 200) - that targets journalists. NSO and its Pegasus software were recently caught monitoring the activities and communications of many journalists, including in France (Willsher, 2021). Citizen Lab, a laboratory at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy of the University of Toronto, has published numerous rigorous reports on Pegasus as well as other cases of spyware being used on journalists and political leaders (see Citizen Lab, 2021).

Software programs have been developed specifically for journalists to protect themselves and their sources. Secure platforms such as SecureDrop or GlobaLeaks are free open-source software that sources can use to send data to journalists, which protect the confidentiality and anonymity of the exchanges and require little technical knowledge. These platforms “grant whistleblowers the position to achieve and facilitate the completion of a whistleblowing act on the Internet” (Di Salvo, 2020). They enable individuals to submit files and information without having to identify themselves via a simple to use and straightforward website interface. Di Salvo (2020) notes that although these platforms have now become fixtures in large media organizations, they have known security vulnerabilities and design issues that make them inherently risky to use both for sources and journalists (Jayakrishnan & Murali, 2019). Indeed, the platforms in some cases fail to provide plausible deniability and protect the identity of all participants. While this is technically true, these platforms can still be used with a relatively high level of confidence (Di Salvo, 2021).

Although journalists are increasingly cognizant of the issues related to digital security, few report being knowledgeable in this area (Kleber, 2015). Journalism schools have been slow to adapt their training to changes in the technological landscape, in part because teachers come from a generation that is not knowledgeable about these tools, thus leading journalists to look for training in this area via workshops, online courses, and online textbooks. There are several cybersecurity manuals written for journalists to help make them aware of the risks of surveillance and educate them about the tools available to protect them (Carlo & Kamphuis, 2014; McGregor, 2014; Kleberg, 2015). While the more experienced journalists hope that younger journalists will help increase their knowledge in this area, even those who are digital natives have, for the most part, very limited knowledge about how the internet and cybersecurity function.

Tsui and Lee (2021) posit that journalists fall into one of three categories. Journalists that follow the security by obscurity model (McGregor and Watkins, 2016) are neither interested in nor knowledgeable about technology. These journalists believe that technology is unnecessary, and that it offers little value in terms of protecting themselves or their sources, often because of the type of news they cover. Journalists who adhere to the security by obfuscation model attempt to protect themselves by using code words, misspellings to evade automated filters, and encrypted applications. The most astute journalists come under the security as an opportunity model, whereby they take full advantage of the latest technological developments to communicate securely and anonymously. These journalists use technology to seek out new sources and work on more sensitive stories that other journalists cannot. These journalists are cognizant of the capabilities of nation states and adapt to their environment by using the right tool at the right time. Older journalists are more likely to follow the security by obscurity model (Henrichsen, 2020).

Crete-Nishihata et al. (2020) confirm the lack of uniformed security knowledge and culture among journalists. They provide an interesting analysis of the security culture based on the employment status and the specialization of journalists. It appears that journalists display little initiative to learn about security unless they feel concerned by threats of surveillance and monitoring. This is primarily the case for investigative journalists. Learning about security and technology is a luxury that freelance journalists cannot afford in many cases. Some trade unions and associations help freelancers to improve their knowledge of security issues, but acquiring the requisite tools and knowledge is disproportionally skewed in favor of journalists who belong to large media organizations. The financial precarity of many newsrooms contributes greatly to this divide (Henrishcen, 2020). McGregor et al. (2016) state that all journalists would, in an ideal world, know about security and technology. Unfortunately, however, there are only so many priorities that they can focus on at one time. This is not an isolated case in the business sector; many companies fail to recognize the risks of cyberattacks and the need for a stronger security culture in their organization until it is too late.

One strategy through which to foster this security culture would be to embed IT professionals within teams of journalists and newsrooms (Henrichsen, 2020). These security champions would first and foremost play the role of an evangelist by convincing journalists to enhance their knowledge of technology and security. Many researchers have highlighted the challenges in using anonymity technologies (Whitten and Tygar, 1999; Sheng et al., 2006; Ruoti et al., 2015). To convince journalists to push beyond the initial learning curve and adopt anonymity technologies still represents a key challenge for many organizations. This is due, in part, to the need for journalists to work on multiple stories at the same time, and to publish new stories on a daily basis. Against this backdrop, anything deemed to be a speed bump is eliminated in favor of productivity (Henrichsen, 2020).

Technologies sometimes interfere with other aspects of the journalistic process. For example, cybersecurity can sometimes serve as a barrier to communication with sources and, as such, it is considered more important for a journalist to foster contact with their source than to have secure communications (McGregor et al., 2015). This is why journalists bow to the preferences of their sources with regards to modes of communication. This should encourage developers of cybersecurity tools dedicated to investigative journalism to pay due attention to the information sources when developing these tools, rather than just the journalists (McGregor et al., 2015). Technology also creates conflicts between security-minded journalists and those who are not (Tsui and Lee, 2021). Many do not recognize the benefits and necessity of using technologies in some instances, which, in turn, creates conflict between journalists and editors regarding how to work, and how to collaborate.

Attempting to introduce cybersecurity may create a barrier to communicating with sources. Given that many journalists believe that contact with sources is more important than secure communications (McGregor et al., 2015), they often bow to the preferences of their sources with regard to modes of communication. Developers of cybersecurity tools dedicated to investigative journalism should thus be cognizant of this fact and pay more attention to the needs of sources when developing these tools (McGregor et al., 2015).

Research problems

While the literature on anonymity in the context of investigative journalism describes methods through which to establish relationships with sources in the context of mass digital surveillance, there is a relative dearth of research that has explored the impact of anonymity technologies on the relational dynamics between journalists and their sources. The majority of studies focusing on the use of anonymity technologies by investigative journalists have specific and pragmatically determined goals: helping to develop tools that are useful in investigative journalism and meet the challenges of data protection (McGregor & al., 2015) or enhancing both training in and awareness of these tools (Kleberg, 2015; Posetti, 2018). Most of these studies emphasize the value of investigative journalism disclosures in a democratic society, along with stressing the importance of the academic world’s commitment to such journalist work. While many studies focus in various ways on the relationships between journalists and their sources, few deal specifically with the effect of anonymity technologies on these relationships. There are multiple reasons for this absence. Journalists began to use anonymity technologies only a few years ago and the relatively recent emergence of these new tools may explain why only a few academic researchers have studied this topic. Our contribution attempts to make up for this gap in extant research. Rather than relying on studies that try to describe the interactional dynamics between journalists and their sources, we explore the meaning and significance that journalists themselves give to the use of anonymity tools, focusing in particular on the way they instrumentalize these technologies in their relationships with confidential sources. This focus helps us better understand the power relationship between journalists and sources. Our findings should be of interest to both journalists – helping them to take a step back from their own practices – and to the general public – helping them to better understand the news that contributes toward shaping their perception of the world by showing them how this information is created. Our findings should also be of interest to information security practitioners in general. Indeed, anonymity tools are a subset of the tools that these individuals use on a daily basis when collecting intelligence on offenders, or when communicating in a hostile environment. Anonymity tools are also adopted by regular users who wish to remain anonymous for a number of reasons (see Kang, 2013) as well as by offenders seeking to protect their identity from being discovered (Van Hardeveld et al., 2013). However, information security tools are too broad to be discussed in a single paper, and thus we limit the scope of this paper to tools that are specifically related to anonymity protection.

Our research goal is to describe and understand the impact of anonymity technologies on the relationships between investigative journalists and their confidential sources. We look first at how investigative journalists manage their sources, including how they initiate contact and inspire trust. We then analyze how journalists use anonymity technologies: how they decide to use such technologies, which technologies they end up choosing, and the impact of adopting these technologies. We adopt a media-centric approach to journalism, describing and understanding the modalities of creation and consolidation of the journalist/source relationship through the prism of the logic of the actions of journalists themselves, rather than sources.


This study is based on interviews with 14 Canadian investigative journalists from across the country. Our sample includes journalists who were part of an investigation bureau, an investigation cell, and a consortium of investigative journalists. All participants were working for national or provincial media, which were either publicly or privately owned. Their years of experience as investigative journalists varied from a few months to decades. The interviews lasted on average 60 minutes and were designed to ensure confidentiality, thus facilitating the sharing of confidential information. Contact with the participants was made either directly through a solicitation email, through personal contacts, or by employing the snowball technique. The vast majority of the participants were men (N = 13), while their ages ranged from 28 to 53 years. Participants took part in semi-directed interviews. The interview guide was divided into several topics, including feelings about IT security and the need to protect oneself, the anonymity technologies they used to conduct their investigations and the way these technologies are integrated into their work practices and both the type and content of relationships with sources, in addition to more general questions regarding issues related to the anonymity of sources.

This research was conducted from the perspective of methodological individualism and was based on the theoretical framework of strategic analysis (Crozier & Friedberg, 1977), which holds that relationships should be understood in terms of power: participants in a relationship attempt to mobilize resources with the goal of increasing their margin of freedom and thus their power. Information, before being transmitted to a journalist, is a mobilizable resource for a source – journalists are dependent on information and the source could give the information to another journalist. However, while sources may provide journalists with the starting point for their stories, not everyone with information gains source status. Anyone wishing to see a fact made public (turned into an event, or even a scandal) must be able to provide material that, in both substance and form, can be used by journalists to produce content that meets the criteria that establishes what is expected of them (Demers, 1983). From a less media-centric perspective, we could say that news reflects the social dynamics and power relations in society (Molotch & Lester, 1974). The publication of information constitutes a stake for the source that leaks it, which, in turn, leads to a sort of dependency upon the journalist. The latter has the freedom to decide whether to use the information or not (a relative freedom since editorial decisions are often made in consultation with editors and according to the editorial line of the publication that provides the context for such decisions) and how to present it (also relative, as orientation, cognitive biases, writing techniques, and relation to information, valuing some aspects to the detriment of others, etc., depends on the journalist’s socialization, education, and professional experience). This freedom, however relative it may be, constitutes a key resource for the journalist in their power relationship with the source. Another theoretical basis for our approach is the theory of symbolic interactionism, which explains social phenomena in terms of interactions between individuals, arguing that it is only by understanding individual actions that we can understand societal dynamics. Goffman (1959) uses a dramaturgical metaphor to explain human behaviour during interactions: individuals are like actors – everyone takes on a role, where a role is defined as a pre-established model for action that we develop during a performance and can present or use in other occasions. The individual also uses a facade, a symbolic apparatus that is used during the performance to help fix the definition of a situation. We also build on Georg Simmel’s approach to help understand the relationships and concepts that underlie confidence and secrecy. Simmel defines trust as an intermediate state between knowledge and non-knowledge. The existence of the concept of trust would not make sense if we knew everything and, conversely, we would not so readily trust if we knew nothing. Secrecy therefore serves a fundamental function in human relationships: the evolution of a relationship is characterized by the amount of secrecy that individuals maintain with each other (Simmel, 1996).

Inspiring trust in sources

Investigative journalists employ various strategies to inspire trust, often based on constructing a specific image of the profession and of themselves. They participate in the construction of both a collective professional identity – the way the field is seen – and an individual professional identity – their personal reputation. Both are necessary not only for inspiring the confidence and commitment of future sources but also to consolidate and maintain relationships with existing sources. The journalists interviewed discussed their involvement with different groups, including their peers, employers, and their professional networks (ex. International Consortium of Investigative Journalists).

Journalistic reputations are based upon source protection. For sources to be willing to provide information, they have to be convinced that it is safe for them to talk to the journalist involved.

“You know, I'm reading about Edward Snowden wanting to contact Glenn Greenwald and Greenwald initially didn't have any PGP [pretty good privacy] set up and I sort of thought ‘what if somebody reaches out to us,’ how do we let them know that we are gonna protect them.” (Subject 3)

“If we want to keep our credibility, well, we also have to protect the people who talk to us, that is extremely important. There are people who take big risks when they talk to us, so we have to make sure that these people can trust us.” (Subject 2)

“If it is known that you do not protect your sources then you completely lose your reputation as a journalist. And no one wants to talk to you anymore.” (Subject 2)

Our interviewees felt that it was important to display their skills through their publications. Their investigations demonstrate their ability to obtain information, protect confidential sources, and locate additional knowledge about a subject that, in turn, allows them to present source information in such a way that demonstrates its relevance and optimizes its scope. Exhibiting expertise not only creates credibility in the eyes of potential sources but also inspires their trust. Journalists who have previously obtained and revealed information show not only that they have been trusted by confidential sources but that, through their knowledge of the subject, that the sensitivity of the information has been recognized and adequate protection has been put in place to protect the source.

“You have to work to get people's trust." (Subject 5)

“You have to show that you know your subject and you have to look interesting to the source." (Subject 10)

“It is also by doing credible work, so that these sources want to provide us with information. So, we can not rush a job... We need to have a good reputation in the circles of people who are ready to provide information to us.” (Subject 5)

Many journalists specialize in a specific field, which allows them to both become better known in a particular community and establish long-term relationships with their sources.

"But it's funny, I walk around the courthouse and there are a bunch of investigators that I don't know and who smile at me and then say hello. But you know I feel that at some point you feel that they recognize you, but you don't know who they are. It can be anything like a hello and then a smile. Sometimes there are some who talk to you… It ends with an exchange of business cards and then telephone numbers.” (Subject 13)

Using journalistic practices to establish a reputation that will encourage sources to transmit information takes time – both time to gain the trust of sources and to build a network of sources. The construction of relationships is based on personal knowledge (shared values, sympathy, humor). Over time, journalists hope to establish a relationship that will lead their sources not only to provide them with information but also to limit their sharing of information to only one journalist. In other words, they seek to build and maintain a complicit relationship by gaining the loyalty of sources.

“There is nothing like being present in the field for... You know... the best sources develop through relationships, and relationships are all built on trust. The person has to trust you. A source generally doesn't consider himself a source. These people see you as a friend, a good acquaintance, but always as someone who can be trusted. And so, they will help you... these relationships are generally created by meeting, by talking regularly... They’re built over time.” (Subject 7)

"With repeat sources we have what I call "meetings without objectives".... I have the freedom to go to dinner, have a coffee, without it relating to a story. Just to have a good relationship. I think of one time in particular, we went three times for coffee before he gave me any info. Or we call each other from time to time. Generally, we don't see each other if the person doesn't have any information, but sometimes it's been a long time, so I maintain the relationship. It is important to maintain confidence and also to stay in people's minds, so that if something happens, it is me that they think of telling it to." (Subject 14)

“I have colleagues who stay connected 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Strangely enough, I'm a little too wild to be a journalist. When I'm on vacation, I try to drop out. But I still warn the most important sources before leaving." (Subject 14)

The use of anonymity technologies

While sources previously used to discreetly drop the traditional “brown envelope” filled with confidential information into journalists' mailboxes, many sources now use the internet and electronic platforms such as SecureDrop to share confidential information. This is especially the case with sources who wish to remain anonymous, even to the journalist involved.

“We never knew who sent us that information. Even if someone tortured me, I couldn't reveal who it was. I have no idea.” (Subject 2)

Some journalists openly advertise their use and knowledge of anonymity technologies. It is common for journalists to end their stories with their Signal number (Signal is an app for mobile devices that provides anonymity) or their ProtonMail address (ProtonMail is an anonymous email service), which lets their readers know how to contact them, while, simultaneously, remaining anonymous and protecting their identity.

When deciding to use anonymity technologies, journalists need to evaluate the extent of their exposure to surveillance and their need to preserve the anonymity of sources. Evaluating the risk of espionage is based on several criteria. The first is the context (political, historical, or even legal) in which the communication occurs. Government spying is less likely to take place during certain periods. For example, if police wiretapping of a journalist has just been denounced by the press as an attack on the exercise of the profession and therefore on freedom of expression and democracy itself, then there is little chance that the police will be active in monitoring journalists.

“The fear [of surveillance] has decreased a little. It was really the Lagacé affair that burst the abscess. A police force would be crazy now if they decided to listen to or spy on a journalist. You know, with all that it did... It would be surprising." (Subject 13)

Journalists also evaluate their personal position when assessing the risk of espionage. Those who have already exposed multiple scandals are more likely to be spied on, as are those who are part of international consortiums and deal with sensitive data that has a large impact.

"If you were drawing up a list of journalists who would be good to spy on, I would be on that list. … It wouldn't take a genius to figure out that I would be a good person to spy on." (Subject 4)

The type of information a journalist receives is also taken into account in assessing whether anonymity technologies are needed: the data transmitted can come in different forms and the information it contains may vary in sensitivity. Finally, the source’s situation (status, institutional affiliation) and background can change the risk level. For example, a police source is clearly more sensitive because it is considered less “legitimate" for such individuals to provide information than for a political source. Someone who has already provided information to the press or is a recurring source for the journalist is also at greater risk.

"If I know that the person able to investigate his communications is not going to take any reprisals against him, well, that takes away my worry." (Subject 1)

"Sometimes, you know, there is someone who writes to me directly on my phone. But I know he's a guy who constantly changes his phone number. He knows, he is very, very, very aware of police methods. He knows, when he writes to me like that, that it is at his own risk. "(Subject 13)

Finally, our data shows that journalists are aware that guaranteeing absolute security is impossible and, as such, they often express a clear preference for meeting the source in person when the risk is high. However, this is not always possible in a country the size of Canada.

"My position is, if people in a high enough position want to know what you are doing, they will be able to." (Subject 6)

“Let's say we were dealing right now with the team of… Julian Assange, let's say. We were trying to do something with them and trying to find a strategy or whatever. I would never presume that WhatsApp or Signal are safe. I mean, I don't think … Assange's team is smart enough not to do that. But I would never rely on that stuff. I would travel to the place where the lawyers are, we would have face-to-face conversations. To me that's the only secure way. Once you use an electronic device that is communicating across a network, you have no idea what's happening to that communication." (Subject 11)

Not all journalists have adopted anonymity technologies to the same degree. Journalists who are members of international consortiums often feel that they are likely to be spied on and are therefore acutely aware of the need for cybersecurity, even becoming militant about their employers needing to systematically introduce anonymity technologies. On the other hand, certain organizations have promoted the use of anonymity tools and, hence, expect their employees to adopt the tools they provide. The implementation of anonymity technologies within an editorial team can thus derive from either top-down or bottom-up pressure.

"I don't think our corporation does a very good job of instructing its journalists in the use of anonymity technologies, because it's been very slow, and the bulk of the reporting is daily news reporting where source protection is not a huge priority. So, there have been specialists and investigative journalists within our own organization, myself included, who've learned it through various stories. […] It's the frontline reporters who better understand the need to protect sources rather than the leadership." (Subject 11)

“I would say that I've done the majority of my learning on my own through workshops. I participated in a lot of conferences at journalist gatherings, security workshops, security… over the years I've probably been in 10 or 12, so I know… I’ve largely learned in those situations. I do a bit of my own research, try to figure out what tools I want to use. But, you know, different organizations sponsor these things and in the end, I end up… actually, I've given a bunch of workshops here for my newsroom. It's more like, I go to some workshops and then I end up giving them for my colleagues.” (Subject 4)

The use of anonymity technologies sends the message that journalists are serious, that is, that their work is so important that they are at risk of surveillance, often because they are reporting on institutions or those in positions of power. In most cases, sources disclose information to the press in pursuit of a personal goal that often includes seeing that the information they provide reaches a large number of people. Hence, communicating through anonymity technologies allows the journalist to send the message that the information they are receiving is important and that the resulting publication will make noise and generate a lot of interest.

“If the person has an interest in such information, then it is important to understand that... if it comes out, the newspaper where I work, for example, will not be discreet... Sometimes you have to take advantage of this interest that the person has so that it comes out." (Subject 10)

In some cases, however, the promotion and use of anonymity technologies may frighten sources by making them aware that there may be attempts tap into their communications. Pointing out the risks of eavesdropping may increase their anxiety, thus making a source less likely to maintain contact.

"It can scare the sources too. So, it's a double-edged sword. We want to protect them but also it can... Well, if they think that their communications must be encrypted and everything... it can have the opposite effect." (Subject 9)

Anonymity technologies can also make the communication more difficult if sources find them difficult to use. By complicating the process of transferring information, anonymity technologies can thus act as a brake on the acquisition of information.

“For example, for a source who is much older and therefore not very technologically savvy, it is more difficult at that time to have specific applications installed and everything. It is easy, but it is a little more difficult. It's easier to go and meet this person.” (Subject 9)

“I sometimes engage in conversations on Signal, except that it is a bit tricky sometimes because the communication is not very good there." (Subject 2)

To manage this tension, journalists often need to communicate directly with their sources, in an attempt to negotiate the difficult process of maintaining contact while not tarnishing their reputation by failing to sufficiently protect their sources. Each case is unique, and journalists must continuously assess the risk of eavesdropping and the ability of a source to integrate anonymity technologies into their communications.

"People usually discuss their requests a little bit, then I comply with their requests and if I see that the way they behave is dangerous, then I will tell them that maybe it is better to function another way." (Subject 2)

"Some people say like, ‘ok, let's meet’, and then we meet, and we figure out what level of security they want, or what kind of communication they are comfortable with." (Subject 3)

Proactive construction of a network of sources

Investigative journalism is a process of co-construction of information that involves both journalists and sources. Whether a source’s information provides a scoop or directs the journalist to the most important issues on a subject, sources play an important role in the construction of information. Understanding this process is key to fully discussing the impact of anonymity technologies. In this section, we present Canadian journalists’ perceptions of their relationships with sources as well as the role that sources play in investigative journalism.

Investigative journalists stress that they need to build a network of sources. There are few rules for creating such a network, but investigative journalists often join social or professional circles populated by professionals active in their field of investigation. Political journalists, for example, develop close and informal ties with political communicators in order to “win scoops” (Legavre, 2014). Conversation in the corridors of Parliament is also useful and may indicate who should be contacted for information on a particular subject. An investigative journalist specializing in tax matters may attend conferences on tax evasion in order to meet tax lawyers and economists. The aim is to develop and maintain the largest possible pool of potential sources as there is no way of knowing who will become a whistleblower or be useful to confirm received information. The job of an investigative journalist thus has a very strong relational component, insofar as journalists must continually work to create and maintain connections with potential sources.

Investigative journalists are proactive when it comes to building a network of sources.

"It's half and half, I would tell you, 50% is prospecting, we are going to make calls ourselves, we call here and there, we are going to have lunch with someone, all that, then the other half are people who call us. But if you're just going to wait for the phone to ring then you're going to wait a long time. You still have to be active. There is still a lot of research, of procedures in the background to find [sources]." (Subject 5)

"It is often in the events... where we discuss, shake hands... then try to find a topic of interest... we have in common [that we find sources]" (Subject 10)

They also encourage the public to send them information. To facilitate contact with a potential source, journalists make themselves visible and accessible, especially on social networking sites. It is very easy to use the internet to find out how to get in touch with an investigative journalist, whether via social media networks (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn) or directly by email or phone. Being visible and accessible is part of a journalistic strategy to widen one’s network of sources.

“Me, at the end of my articles, I always write my phone number." (Subject 13)

It is also common for sources to contact journalists directly following the first publication of a story. This scenario was reported by many of the journalists we interviewed. A journalist’s published stories are akin to a business card, a proof of reliability if you will, as they attest to the trust of a previous source as well as demonstrating the seriousness and quality of the work.

"The more you publish, the more people come to you." (Subject 14)

"Once a report has been broadcast, we will certainly be contacted. We are going to have suggestions, there are people who will call us. It can be new sources, but it can also be sources that we found during a first report who will contact us several years later with new suggestions. It also happens like that." (Subject 9)

During our interviews, the journalists stressed the importance of the relational aspect when dealing with sources. Relationships with their sources are of different types – some are ad hoc, as is often the case with whistleblowers, while others are more regular.

The proximity between journalists and sources varies, ranging from cordial and "give and take" to friendly. Journalists take into consideration the well-being and long-term potential relationships of sources. Journalists must always maintain good relations with everyone, as they never know when someone might be useful. In addition, a source who is not very talkative at the outset may become more so over time or may introduce the journalist to other sources.

"There are sources, you can know them for two years before it works." (Subject 5)

The journalists clearly prefer to have some knowledge (however minimal and partial) about a source. Like the public, which often finds an article more credible when the source of the information is described (Adams, 1962; Wulfemeyer, 1982; Foreman, 1984), journalists have more confidence in information that comes from a source who is willing to make their identify known.

"I would not say that it is the majority of people, but yes, there are people who call to say ‘listen, I prefer not to identify myself, you should do that, or you should look at that’. In my experience, such interactions are generally limited in time and frequency. […] You try a bit of convincing, you tell them ‘just tell me your name, so I know how to address you then I talk’. ‘Ok, my name is Claude’. ‘Ok, perfect, hi Claude. It's not to identify you."’ (Subject 7)

“Sometimes people email me, and they say ‘I have some information, can you give me your Signal number or other contact?’ And I say ‘just give me a little bit more of a sense of who you are before we do that’, and if they don't respond, then either I've scared them away or they might have been someone with bad intentions toward me. So, there is a certain level of trust you need to establish." (Subject 6)


Our 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. First, the unwritten code of journalists encourages them to respect strict ethical standards and to protect their sources at all costs (Townend & Danbury, 2017). The use of anonymity technologies sends a strong message that everything is being done to protect the identity of sources. At the individual level, the use of anonymity technologies can be used by investigative journalists to demonstrate their adherence to their group’s code of ethics. Second, the use of anonymity technologies suggests to potential sources that an investigative journalist could be under surveillance, and hence producing disturbing content about powerful figures. This struggle against people in power is part of the work of investigative journalists (MacFadyen, 2009) and a method through which to establish one’s credibility and membership among the group of investigative journalists. Anonymity technologies therefore signify an image of counter-power. As sources participate in the construction of information, they too, by proxy, earn the role of counter-power. Anonymity technologies are a means by which the social group of investigative journalists can invite sources to see themselves as white knights, while acceptance of such a perspective can sometimes motivate individuals who witness wrongdoing to take colossal risks by telling their story to journalists. In this respect, belief is the engine of action.

While undoubtedly beneficial, anonymity technologies have not transformed all journalists’ work, as not all journalists take advantage of anonymity technologies (Tsui & Lee, 2021), while many fail to recognize their benefits. Our sample of journalists follows the typology of Tsui & Lee (2021) in that some do not understand the point of using anonymity technologies, others use it because they must, while the remainder actively endorse the use of anonymity technologies. This typology is not meant to shame journalists into using anonymity technologies, but rather to recognize the different realities and needs of investigative journalists based on the stories they cover, the organization they work for, and the surveillance they are likely to exposed to. This paper provides much needed validation for Tsui & Lee’s (2021) typology in a different context, and future studies should continue to explore, validate, and even extend this typology further.

The Canadian investigative journalists appear to be more detached from what both Eide (2019) and Waters (2018) refer to as the chilling effect of mass surveillance . They appear to be more in line with Lyon’s (2015) assessment of the level of freedom they still operate under. This could be explained by the nature of the Canadian government at the local, provincial, and federal levels. While there have been examples of journalist surveillance in Canada (Gobeil, 2016), both these stories and the general fear of mass surveillance appear to be much lower than in other countries such as the United States. The lack of chilling effect for many journalists perhaps explains how and why anonymity tools have not been adopted at the same level as seen in other countries. This exposes Canadian journalists to surveillance. It appears as though anonymity technologies are adopted in reaction to the mass surveillance of journalists, whereas they could be adopted proactively before said surveillance is put in place. Ahmed-Rangers et al. (2020) provide many case studies of sources that were discovered and provide yet another reason for journalists to be proactive in their adoption of anonymity technologies. Investigative journalists that have yet to consider the use of anonymity technologies should therefore evaluate – though not always adopt – anonymity technologies if it makes sense in the context of their professional relationships with sources. Countries with low levels of surveillance should also be the source of future publications seeking to understand how investigative journalists adopt anonymity technologies in lower-risk environments.

The building of a network of sources is not fundamentally transformed by anonymity technologies according to our interviewees. Rather, their adoption has simply been integrated into the strategies journalists use to gain the trust of sources. Anonymity technologies strengthen a certain self-representation for journalists, insofar as they become a resource that can be mobilized in the their power relations with sources but also with other investigative journalists investigating the same subject and coveting the same sources. Claiming to have knowledge and know-how of anonymity technologies allows journalists to reassure those sources that are most aware of the danger of surveillance (ex. law enforcement officers) and thus create a favorable environment for them to share information. Anonymity technologies help to strengthen the image of a discreet journalist who can be trusted because they do everything necessary to protect their communications, including learning to use anonymity technologies which are not, a priori, a part of journalism. To use Goffman's (1959) dramaturgical metaphor, anonymity technologies are accessories that allow journalists to reinforce a certain representation of themselves in the eyes of others, thus consolidating their role. A person who possesses information they wish to disclose to the press and who is aware of the danger this can pose will thus more easily turn to such a journalist, although manifold other criteria may also come into play.

Anonymity technologies do change the balance of power between journalists and sources. Both journalists and sources seek to control both their relationship (Bernier, 1994) and the narrative. Although journalists should aspire to objective reporting, they may fall short of this ideal if the information they receive is tainted for personal, economic, or political gains (Stenvall, 2008). Suggesting to a source to communicate via secure channels gives the journalist a protective role and therefore an ascending position of power. Conversely, when it is the source that initiates communicating via these modes of communication, then the journalist is placed in a position where they need to bend to the sources’ wishes regarding the use of anonymity technologies for fear of losing the source (McGregor & al., 2015). Asserting a willingness to use one technology over another is a way for an actor to accentuate their dominant position. In short, to use the symbolic interactionism lexicon of Goffman (1959), anonymity technologies are accessories that form part of the symbolic apparatus (or “facade”) used to define the situation, and each of the protagonists in this dyadic relationship seek to increase their freedom and therefore their power vis-à-vis the other. This struggle for power plays a significant role in determining what information is shared and published, and by whom, alongside how the information is communicated. This could lead to the kind of tainted coverage that Hatcher (2010) posits occurred during the war in Iraq. This is in line with Crozier and Friedberg’s (1977) views regarding relationships of power.

In contrast to McGregor et al. (2015), our research shows that journalists put a lot of emphasis on the use of anonymity technologies, either by choice or because of their employer’s policies. While there is a balance that needs to be struck between a journalist and their source, we find little evidence that journalists would drop their guard and not use anonymity technologies simply to receive information from a source. This perhaps highlights the ease of use of modern anonymity tools that have become ever-more easier to use in recent years. Indeed, sources need no technical skills to use software like SecureDrop. This calls into question the future of mass surveillance of journalists. If journalists en masse adopt anonymity technologies, then surveillance of their activities will become harder, which, in turn, may necessitate a change of tactics for those in power. This could mean more intrusive physical surveillance, and even more overt forms of intimidation. Here, once again, relations of power are essential, and the balance between journalists and the people in power that they disclose information about may not tolerate such a shift in favor of journalists. It is important to note here that while mass surveillance may become harder, it is unlikely to become impossible. Mass surveillance relies on special access to service providers, such as phone companies, internet service providers and even hardware manufacturers. In light of the development of software like Pegasus (see Citizen Lab, 2021), insulating oneself and their devices from attacks still appears to be difficult. Therefore, software developed for journalists certainly hinders mass surveillance, but by no means does it make it impossible.

In any case, large adoption of anonymity technologies could also make it harder for investigative journalists to be targeted simply because of their use of anonymity technologies. Once these technologies become ubiquitous, the investigative journalists that use them against people in power may better hide themselves amidst the mass of journalists and sources. The collective benefits of adopting anonymity technologies would at this point be much more important than the aggregate of the individual benefits that have been described in this paper.


The findings in this paper derive from interviews with Canadian investigative journalists. Canada has a political, social, and economic landscape that is similar to many other Western industrialized countries. This landscape is, however, impacted by Canada’s geographic location in North America, its history as a colony, and its diversity with both French and English-speaking populations. As such, Canada provides an interesting yet not perfectly generalizable setting from which to study investigative journalism. The findings in this paper must thus be interpreted in light of the Canadian context and should not therefore be directly generalized to other countries.

The introduction of anonymity technologies in the relationships between investigative journalists and their anonymous sources does not fundamentally change their modalities, at least in Canada, both when making contact and also in terms of solidifying the relationship, defining its bases and codes and writing it down over time; on the contrary, they accentuate them. The interactionist perspective allows us to understand that these technologies, although undoubtedly constituting a means of protection against the risks of espionage, are also 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 thus participate fully in the construction of the collective and individual professional identities of investigative journalists. They are also incorporated into the relational game during the consolidation of the relationship.

As we have seen, the introduction of these new tools can either be done in an institutionalized manner (established by the hierarchy at the level of an entire editorial staff) or in an individualized manner (journalists initiate their use) or, phrased otherwise, top-down or bottom-up. In all the cases we studied in Canada, the construction and consolidation of confidential journalist-source relationships have not, once again, been fundamentally modified by the incorporation of anonymity technologies into the modalities of exchange. The challenges remain the same for Canadian journalists: preserving and increasing the trust of their sources, maintaining sufficient proximity and complicity to ensure the fidelity of the source and the veracity of the information it provides. Although the management of cybersecurity and the protection of telephone communications is done on a case-by-case basis and, as such, is impossible to generalize, the way in which journalists incorporate (or not) anonymity technologies into the relationship is still dependent on three factors which are fully linked to the issue of trust: the assessment of the risk of espionage, the degree of awareness of the source regarding the danger of espionage, and the ability of the source to use cybersecurity tools.

This paper sought to explore the views of Canadian journalists apropos the strategies they are implementing to increase their power in their dealings with their confidential sources. It would be interesting to carry out additional research from the perspective of sources, as this would enable a better grasp of the relational dynamics and the strategies developed by journalists to respond to those employed by sources. In addition, this study has solely focused on the use of encryption technologies used to communicate with sources. Journalists also use computer tools to protect their stored data, and it would be interesting to analyze in greater depth the impact that they can have on journalistic practices and, more specifically, on the relationship with sources. The capacity to store data in a secure way is becoming ever-more important in a context defined by "big data" of journalistic surveys.


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