news tips

News tips in a new world: To encrypt or not to encrypt?

How do major media outlets get important, confidential news tips and document leaks in today’s hyper-vigilant, surveillance-mad environment? Are all newspapers and electronic media going the Wikileaks route, making it easier for government whistle-blowers and concerned citizens to share information without revealing who they are?

Here’s what I’ve learned, via some simple research: Approaches to soliciting and accepting news tips vary widely among print and electronic media.

Among the top 10 American newspapers [by circulation], the New York Times, the Washington Post, and USA Today appear to be the only three that offer a way to submit documents and tips via identity-protecting encryption.

New York Times

On its website, the New York Times begins by inviting news tips [as newspapers have done for centuries], and giving examples of how a good news tip is phrased:

Here is evidence that this government representative is breaking the law.

Here is proof that this company is conducting itself unethically.

Then, the NYT offers three ways to submit a news tip anonymously:

WhatsApp is a free messaging app owned by Facebook that allows full end-to-end encryption for its service. Only the sender and recipient can read messages, photos, videos, voice messages, documents and calls. Though you can limit some account information shared to Facebook, WhatsApp still keeps records of the phone numbers involved in the exchange and the users’ metadata, including timestamps on messages.

Signal: The free and open source messaging app offers end-to-end encryption to send messages, photos, video and calls. Signal retains only your phone number, when you first registered with the service and when you were last active. No metadata surrounding communications is retained. The app also allow messages to self-destruct, removing them from the recipient’s and sender’s phones (once it’s been seen) after a set amount of time.

Email: You may send us encrypted or unencrypted emails. Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) is an encryption software that allows you to send encrypted emails and documents. Mailvelope is a browser extension for Chrome and Firefox that makes it easy to use PGP. The extension will only encrypt the contents of the email you’re sending. Mailvelope will not encrypt metadata such as sender, recipient, subject or information about when the email was sent. This metadata will be available to your email provider

Washington Post

WaPo goes several steps further than the NYT, offering six news-tip channels. Upfront, it warns that, “No system is 100% secure, but these tools attempt to create a more secure environment than that provided by normal communication channels for encrypted submissions.”

In addition to WhatsApp, Signal and user-encrypted email [Pretty Good Privacy, or PGP], WaPO offers:

Peerio: A free, end-to-end encrypted messaging app, which allows you to communicate directly with The Post. Peerio provides fully encrypted cloud storage for files. You can transfer files to The Post as large as 400 megabytes.

Pidgin: This is a secure, desktop messaging app. When used with the OTR (off-the-record) plug-in, it can be used to send encrypted messages. We recommend you also turn off logging for added security. Pidgin also supports encrypted file transfers.

SecureDrop: An open-source whistleblower submission system [created by the Freedom of the Press Foundation] that media organizations can use to securely accept documents from and communicate with anonymous sources. SecureDrop submissions are entirely encrypted and do not include any identifying metadata

USA Today

USA Today suggests that anonymous whistle-blowers and tipsters use Secure Drop to send documents and news items to the parent paper and/or to its 109 affiliates across the country. [Although USA Today offers encryption, it has been making a concerted effort not to quote anonymous sources. More comments on that later.]

Wall Street Journal

Interesting story: In 2011, the Wall Street Journal launched its own, homegrown rival to Wikileaks. The Journal named the system SafeHouse.  The system faced immediate criticism for its weak security measures. One cybersecurity analyst called it  “a ‘total anonymity failure’ that could compromise the security of whistleblowers.”  WSJ quickly vowed to upgrade it.  At some point though – I am still trying to track down exactly when and why – WSJ shut down SafeHouse. The WSJ website now directs tipsters to send information to newseditors@wsj.com. This is a standard email address, and submitters are required to include their contact information.

LA Times

The LA Times invites news tips, but offers only a conventional e-mail address for submissions. The only nod to confidentiality is that personal contact information is optional.

New York Post, Newsday, Chicago Tribune, Daily News, amNewYork

Surprisingly, the often sensational  New York Post simply states, “Send us your news tips,” and includes an old-school email form. Other papers ranked in America’s top 10 also seem not to expect big news to arrive in a 21st Century cyber-secure style, which I interpret to mean that they don’t expect to break big news based on confidential information [not that there’s anything wrong with that]: Newsday appears uninterested in anonymous tips, calling its “tip” page “User Article,” requiring that all contact information be included, and offering a fill-in section that allows up to 5,000 characters. The Chicago Tribune invites user-submitted “breaking news tip and ideas” in a personal-info-optional on-line form. The New York Daily News instructs readers, in small type, to send news tips to the City Desk.  On the amNewYork website, you’ll find the same personal-info-required form that appears on many other newspaper websites.

Web-based, cable and broadcast media

My limited research into a sampling of non-print media makes me think that these outlets don’t rely that much on anonymous tipsters.

MSNBC, whose lineup of commentators and reporters are often intent on breaking “exclusive” stories, encourages audience members to “Send it to Rachel” [Maddow], or any other of its reporters, using either conventional email, Twitter,  WhatsApp or Telegram, another messaging encryption app.

Fox News answers the question, “Where can I send story questions, corrections, or news tips?” by listing an email address.

CNN maintains a phone line expressly for reporting tips, but it’s a bit hard to find. On its iReport page, CNN says:

Is breaking news happening near you? We’d like you to share your images and information with CNN.

Once you’re in a safe place, you can get your story to us by posting on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook with the hashtag #CNNiReport. A CNN producer may contact you, so keep an eye out for notifications from your social accounts.

You can also post your photos and stories in the box below. [Blogger’s note: No such box sighted]

Please note: Breaking news situations can be unpredictable and sometimes dangerous. Do not expose yourself to a risky or potentially dangerous situation.

CBS News quietly lists its street mailing address, and suggests that you “email us an investigative tip.”

NPR approaches news tips by asking:  Do You Have A Tip? If you have solid tips or documents on stories we should probe, please submit them to NPR’s investigative team.

Huffington Post suggests that its readers “Give Us The Scoop.”

Do you have a news tip, firsthand account, information or photos about a news story to pass along to our editors? Send a news tip or email us at scoop@huffingtonpost.com

Old school

It’s easy to overlook one additional mechanism for anonymous tippers that remains workable and effective: snail mail. Just about all of the news organizations I looked at for this post included the US Postal Service as a means of getting information to them securely. With the obvious caveat of not including one’s name and return address, the New York Times and the Washington Post both note that dropping a document or tip into a corner mailbox still works. Isn’t that amazing and wonderful? With all of the electronic surveillance and hacking that we worry about, we can still trust the US Postal Service to respect the privacy of paper mail. Score one for old school.

What does it mean, if anything?

I freely acknowledge that this roundup is far from exhaustive. I’ve looked at only a small sample. I didn’t find much on international new organizations, like the BBC or The Times of London. And I wouldn’t feel comfortable commenting on news organizations that reflect a culture I don’t know. So everything I’m about to write is opinion and speculation.

I’m just wondering: Why have some news outlets taken the extra step of enabling whistle-blowers to send them encrypted information, while others have not.

I’m not suggesting that all news organizations should be enabling anonymous whistle-blowers by offering encrypted messaging services. But it seems to me that the organizations that make anonymity possible may have several motivations: To be in the vanguard of breaking news – which can be economically advantageous; and to view the role of the press as a noble bastion against government secrecy—the protector of democracy when no one else will step forward. [And wow, is that important right now.]

That is not to denigrate all news outlets who do not offer sophisticated news-tip formats. It seems to me that some smaller organizations just don’t have the resources to follow up on the big revelations, so they leave that to others and simply try to reliably pass along others’ reporting. Some probably depend more on inside sources and experts cultivated by their reporters and get valuable, breaking, background information that way. Or, perhaps, they’ve seen enough traditionally delivered news tips that were bogus or crackpot to not want to encourage more. And maybe some sense that their readers and followers simply aren’t likely to have the goods.

Some people want to ban the use of anonymous sources, including our president. [Good luck with that.] But some news organizations are trying. In an article in New York Magazine, writer Kurt Anderson says:

In the last year, USA Today has reduced its use of unnamed sources to an average of fewer than one a day. If you want a sense of how banning anonymous sources might transform journalism, USA Today provides a pretty good preview. As The New Yorker’s David Remnick said when I asked him about his reporter Seymour Hersh’s use of anonymous sources, “How many national-security stories has USA Today broken?”

One thing seems true, though: As we see our current president and his whisperers embarking on a path of secrecy and suppression of the free press, getting the real story is going to be more important than ever – even if it comes in through a hidden back door.

Gloria Shur Bilchik Gloria Shur Bilchik (621 Posts)

Gloria Shur Bilchik is a freelance writer and community volunteer in St. Louis, Missouri. She is the editor of Occasional Planet. She views the preservation of democratic values and progressive programs as vital to making the US a humane, livable place for her children and grandchildren.