“Is it possible to protect journalists’ sources in the digital age?”, survey asks

This is one of the key research questions underpinning a survey launched by the World Editors Forum today, as part of a global UNESCO-commissioned study into journalists’ source protection.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | October 27, 2014

Titled UNESCO Internet Study: Privacy and Journalists’ Sources, this major global research project requires the direct input of editors, journalists, publishers, media organisations and associations, policy experts, media lawyers, press freedom activists and NGOs, and public interest bloggers.

If you fit this profile, you can make an important contribution by completing our online survey in the first instance. In the next phase of the research, we will be conducting long-form (qualitative) interviews with sources we have identified as valuable to our examination of these critical issues in contemporary investigative journalism.

The study is being led by WAN-IFRA/World Editors Forum Research Fellow Julie Posetti and, so far, it has identified and mapped over 120 countries which had some sort of legal protection for journalists’ sources in 2007. The research team is now in the process of updating the data on these countries in order to identify changes in the intervening seven years, and establish new benchmarks for 2014.

Our research has five key objectives:

1. Map legal protections for journalists’ sources globally (What laws exist globally to support journalists’ ethical obligation to protect their sources from unmasking?)

2. Assess the effectiveness of these protections in the digital media context of 2014

3. Identify international case studies that demonstrate issues/problems/best practice

4. Establish the potential consequences of this shifting landscape for acts of investigative journalism

5. Make recommendations to UNESCO.

Our main research questions are: 

1. Is it possible to keep journalists’ sources confidential in the digital age?

2. What laws exist globally to support journalists’ ethical obligation to protect their sources from unmasking?

3. To whom do these laws apply? (Bloggers, tweeters, whistleblowers who ‘go direct’?)

4. How are legal and institutional protections being adapted to digital realities?

5. What are the potential consequences of this shifting landscape for acts of investigative journalism?

6. How should we respond (as states, as journalists/editors/publishers, as legal experts, as civil society organisations etc)?

This research is being undertaken in the context of new digital realities

These can be summarised as:

1. Mass surveillance (as highlighted by The Guardian’s Janine Gibson in our Trends in Newsrooms 2014 report, in discussing the ‘Snowden Effect’)

2. Broadening National Security/anti-terrorsim legislation (which in some cases may trump, or render ineffective, source protection laws such as shield laws).

3. Role of third party intermediaries (e.g. Facebook, Twitter Google et. al now store sensitive data connected to investigative journalism, without a professional or legal obligation to withhold that data in court proceedings).

4. Changing definitions of what journalism is and who does it (e.g. bloggers, social media reporters, sources who ‘go direct’)

This significant study is being undertaken by the World Editors Forum for UNESCO, under a project funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). The results of the study will feed into the wider UNESCO Internet Issues study. Additionally, the full report will be published by UNESCO within an update of the UNESCO World Trends report.

How can you help us with our #SourcesStudy? 

1. Share your experiences

2. Show us your case studies

3. Spread the word (by linking to this post and our earlier story on the project launch)

4. Complete our survey

You can contact Chief Researcher Julie Posetti ( or lead Research Assistant Federica Cherubini ( for further information (see also the Research Concept Document attached to this post), or details about securely contributing sensitive data. We welcome public discussion about the project on Twitter using our handles @julieposetti, @fedecherubini, @newspaperworld and the hashtag #SourcesStudy.

Disclaimer: While this blog post was written within the framework for research conducted for UNESCO funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), ideas, opinions and findings are not necessarily those of UNESCO or Sida and do not commit the organisations. 



Share via
Copy link