Media Criticism

Pew Poll on Investigative Journalists and Digital Security

By Benjamin Wittes
Monday, February 9, 2015, 7:51 AM

This is interesting. From the Pew Research Center:

About two-thirds of investigative journalists surveyed (64%) believe that the U.S. government has probably collected data about their phone calls, emails or online communications, and eight-in-ten believe that being a journalist increases the likelihood that their data will be collected. Those who report on national security, foreign affairs or the federal government are particularly likely to believe the government has already collected data about their electronic communications (71% say this is the case), according to a new survey of members of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE)---a nonprofit member organization for journalists---by the Pew Research Center in association with Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

Thus far, concerns about surveillance and hacking have mostly fallen short of keeping many journalists from pursuing a story or a source; Just 14% say that in the past 12 months, such concerns have kept them from pursuing a story or reaching out to a particular source, or have led them to consider leaving investigative journalism altogether.

Still, these concerns have led many of these journalists to alter their behavior in the past 12 months. Nearly half (49%) say they have at least somewhat changed the way they store or share sensitive documents, and 29% say the same of the way they communicate with other reporters, editors or producers.

And among the 454 respondents who identify as reporters, 38% say that in the past year they have at least somewhat changed the way they communicate with sources.

So here's the question: Who's right? Are investigative journalists being paranoid or is the government gathering data on them? I think the answer is that even paranoids have enemies.

Let's start with the basics: There are many more restraints on capturing journalists' phone records than there are with respect to the average person. These are generally prudential and regulatory restraints, matters of Justice Department policy, not law. But at least with respect to formal policies, journalists have more protection, not less, than the normal Joe.

On the other hand, journalists---particularly investigative journalists---are also likely to be involved in leaks, and leaks tend to spark leak investigations. And there's nothing quite like being in a pool of people who tend to get wrapped up in investigations to have the likelihood of your data being captured go through the roof.

Still, even acknowledging that fact, a lot of investigative journalists are probably inflating their importance here. Most leaks aren't worth serious investigation. And most journalists aren't doing work that prompts governmental notice, let alone action. The likelihood, in my mind, that 64 percent of investigative journalists and 71 percent of national security journalists have had their data collected by the government seems wholly improbable---more a reflection of journalists self-image than governmental behavior. It certainly happens, but come on, guys, you're probably not that important.