The Tow Center COVID-19 Newsletter

For most journalists, producing accurate, reliable reporting in the public interest is a daily job requirement, and one that is no more paramount than in times of crisis. Yet producing accurate reporting often demands that journalists rely on sources who may not be authorized to speak to the press.

Working with such sources presents a particular challenge in the case of the current pandemic, when most journalists are being forced to conduct all of their work remotely. While these health precautions are crucial, journalists unused to an all-digital reporting process may be unwittingly putting themselves, their sources, and their work at risk in other ways.

One type of protection for vulnerable sources is anonymity, but journalists must recognize that this term means something very different in the newsroom than it does in the context of technology. When it comes to digital communications, true anonymity is only possible when it’s impossible to trace which two parties (or devices) were connected; this is impossible with apps and services that typically require a phone number or email account. The metadata generated by the use of these services—i.e. how frequently one party speaks to an other, when, and for how long—is precisely what was used to prosecute James Risen’s alleged source for his book State of War, Jeffrey Sterling, making even encrypted services a poor choice when anonymity is really what you need.

There are only two strategies for trying to protect sources that might be at risk for even speaking to you: first, you can look to services like Jitsi Meet (https://meet.jit.si/), which create ephemeral, browser-based video chats that don’t require any accounts or device information. Instead, the service creates randomly-generated room names which exist only for the length of your call. It’s anonymous because only someone with the room name can connect; the only way for an outsider to know who was in the room is to find the room name and connect themselves. This approach still suffers from the so-called “first contact” problem: you still need a way to let your source know the URL of your chat room and when to “meet” you there. In ordinary circumstances, this could be done through a note, a letter or even word-of-mouth, but those channels are also highly curtailed at the moment. If you want to pursue this option, your best bet might be to call a general number (of a hospital, say) and share the information about your room.

A more intuitive approach may be to create so much “noise” in your communication patterns that identifying your source becomes nearly impossible. This means communicating securely (via an encrypted phone or messaging service) with many people who could credibly be the source for potentially sensitive information, with about the same frequency and duration—for example, a daily 5-minute phone call or exchanging 20 messages per day with many credible sources. The reason this matters is that metadata about our communications can quickly become at least as revealing about our relationship with them as the contents of our exchanges.

When it comes to choosing how to connect, most of us will to rely on whatever tool is most comfortable and accessible for our sources. Since the metadata about who you are communicating with is always accessible to a service provider (and is not protected by privacy laws, at least in the US), journalists will want to protect the contents of communications (e.g. the calls and messages themselves) as much as possible.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Start by choosing tools and platforms that encrypt the contents of your exchanges. In almost all cases, this rules out email altogether. Instead, opt for phone and messaging apps that support “end-to-end” (E2E) encryption if possible; this means that even the service provider/owner can’t see the contents of your exchange. Tools like Signal, iMessage and WhatsApp are E2E by default; platforms like Facebook Messenger and Skype can support it, but you will have to review your messaging configuration to make sure it’s enabled for a given conversation.

From a journalistic perspective, video interviews may be preferable to chat and voice-only options, but be aware that true E2E video is very difficult to implement. Most video services—including Zoom, Google Hangouts, BlueJeans, and Wire—rely on a protocol called WebRTC, and end up effectively disabling E2E in order to improve call quality. One exception is Whereby, which does use E2E video for free accounts; Apple’s FaceTime also promises E2E encryption, but the implementation has not been independently reviewed. Jitsi also uses WebRTC, but does not offer E2E encryption. It’s protection comes primarily from the ephemerality of its connections and fact that it doesn’t require downloading an app or registering an account.

You’ll  need to decide which companies and platforms you or your sources trust most before choosing them, as almost any service provider you use technically could view your calls. If you can make do with a voice-only connection, many  E2E “chat” apps also support phone calls, and even an old-fashioned telephone call can be a good option.

This is an excerpt from the Tow Center’s short guide to reporting during a pandemic, available here.

—Susan E. McGregor, assistant director


Tow Center: How is coronavirus affecting the newsroom, broadly? 

Jim Bernard. Senior Vice President, Digital at Star Tribune: Well, the newsroom has had to move out of the office, so it’s been a substantial cultural and technical shift. I think we have pretty much everybody no longer going into the office. And the production of the paper in particular, but all of our products, without anybody being in the same space, has probably been the biggest change from a culture standpoint. Then obviously there’s the coverage standpoint, which I think we’re well suited to do. The newsroom is very good at a story of this complexity.

What’s the revenue picture for you right now? 

Well, at the executive and strategy level, we’re talking a lot about it. And we’ve had substantial advertising cancelations in the last two or three weeks. We have an incredibly aggressive, smart strategic ad team that’s pivoting to help people who need to help their customers, who actually need to be bold and get into it right now. We’ve been through this, we’ve been through million dollar cancelations. The contracting of the retail economy is basically a series of one million dollar cancellations for us. And we’re very creative about how we respond to that while maintaining a very healthy newsroom. I mean, obviously, if six months from now it’s breadlines and soup lines and there’s people dying outside of their houses that the ambulances can’t pick up, that’s a different ballgame. But if this is a recession and a six month or 18 months business operation interruption, Star-Tribune will be fine. We’re smart, we’re well-funded, we’re aggressive. We’re rooted in our community. So I don’t want to belittle it or even suggest that it’s not a very, very substantial thing to do. But I come to it with a sense of confidence because of our underlying fundamentals. We are important to our consumers and our advertisers seek our advice and assistance to make their marketing plans work. We’re not an alt weekly without one hundred bucks in the bank. We’re a 150 year old institution owned by a local billionaire with steady leadership. And we’re gonna get through it. And in some ways, the thing that I worry more about is over steering. Like, I need my team to stay focused on getting stuff done. We need a better checkout system. That was true on January 1st, and it will be true until we launch the better system. And our CEO is not suggesting that I should slow down. He’s told me, don’t be buying a bunch of t-shirts, don’t be going out to fancy meals, don’t travel. We’re cutting discretionary expenses, but we’re gonna make sure that our priorities are still around having a healthy institution.

Excerpt from an interview by Nushin Rashidian, edited and condensed for clarity.


An update on how Platforms and publishers are reacting to the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the news industry. The New York Times reports that more than 28,000 journalism workers have been laid off, furloughed, or taken a pay cut in the last month.

According to the chief economist at the job listings search engine Indeed.com, “new listings for jobs in the media and communications sector [have] fallen 35 percent in the 60 days before April 3, compared with the same period last year.” A small number of large media companies are still growing their staffs through the pandemic: As Digiday reports, “the New York Times continues to hire across the organization, with 174 roles open, 20 which were posted within the last week. The Washington Post has 54 open job roles—predominantly in product design and engineering—nine of which were posted within the last week. Bloomberg Media has been hiring across sales, product and marketing. Politico, emerging from record-revenue growth in 2019, has added new editorial staff. Time, backed by billionaire Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, is in expansion mode.”

In the same, Ashling O’Connor, head of European media practice at global executive search firm SRI, tells Digiday, “The longer-term view is that media companies have been around for hundreds of years, the existential threat of digital has been around for the last 20: This is more of a hiatus.” For many local news publishers, however, short-term setbacks are enough to prevent long-term survival.

On the platform side, Facebook and Google continue to announce initiatives to fund journalism and combat misinformation amid the pandemic. Last week, Facebook announced the full list of 400 North American newsrooms receiving $5,000 in emergency funding for coronavirus reporting, noting that the company “doubled the total grant pool to $2 million after more than 200 publishers applied in the first 48 hours after the application launched.” In a sign of how deeply entrenched tech money is in local news, one of the newsrooms that received a grant from Facebook was in fact originally launched in collaboration with the Google News Initiative.

Applications open today for the Facebook Journalism Project’s COVID-19 Local News Relief Fund Grant Program, a different program than the one above, which offers larger grants ranging from $25,000-$100,000. The selection committee for the grants will consist of representatives from Institute for Nonprofit News, The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, Local Independent Online News Publishers, Local Media Association, Local Media Consortium, National Association of Broadcasters, and Facebook. Additionally, Facebook announced an investment of $3 million for a series of similar grants to European newsrooms to be administered through the European Journalism Centre, with plans to open applications in the coming days.

As Facebook continues to battle COVID-related misinformation, it has announced the WhatsApp Coronavirus Information hub while struggling to contain Instagram grifters hawking face masks. Meanwhile, a conspiracy theory that has proven especially resilient across social media is the false claim that 5G technology is linked to COVID-19.

Elsewhere, Google updated its tools and resource hub for journalists to include COVID-specific insights and data. The company recently pledged $6.5 million to “fight Coronavirus misinformation” around the world primarily through funding fact-checking organizations, but it has yet to announce any plans to directly support newsrooms.

Finally, when Digiday asked Snap U.K. general manager Ed Couchman how Snap is supporting publishers through the pandemic, he replied, “We are providing incremental revenue for them. We keep promoting the benefits of Discover—brand safe, curated by humans, et cetera.”


Other stories of note:

  • To fight viral misinformation, WhatsApp is adopting measures recommended by the Tow Center in a piece by Harsh Taneja and Himanshu Gupta in August 2018 and limiting message forwarding. The recommendations come after a piece in Mother Jones by Sinduja Rangarajan calling the platform a “petri dish of coronavirus misinformation” in which she interviewed our authors about their proposal.
  • David Smith at the Guardian calls the relationship between Trump and Fox News “dangerous.” “The conservative TV network has been widely condemned for downplaying the threat of Covid-19 even as it took measures to protect its own staff. And with the projected death toll poised to avoid the worst-case scenario, some hosts are resuming their gung-ho attitude,” Smith writes. “‘At some point, the president is going to have to look at Drs Fauci and Birx and say, we’re opening on May 1,’ Laura Ingraham tweeted this week. ‘Give me your best guidance on protocols, but we cannot deny our people their basic freedoms any longer.’”
  • Speaking of the president, his response to critical coverage of the coronavirus crisis has been to elevate media even further to the right than Fox News, notably conspiracy-promoting cable network OANN (which he cited in a quote of a tweet recommending Fauci be fired). “Watching @FoxNews on weekend afternoons is a total waste of time,” the president tweeted on Sunday. “We now have some great alternatives, like @OANN.”
  • Motherboard’s Jason Koebler points out that the popular “study” on Medium about runners spreading coronavirus is not a study at all but a Google Translate translation of a Belgian newspaper article based on a computer simulation by a team of engineers led by Bert Blocken from the Eindhoven University of Technology. “[T]his is aerodynamics work, not virology,” Blocken told Koebler. The Medium post was picked up by popular news outlets including the Daily Mail and promoted widely.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

George Civeris, Susan E. McGregor, Nushin Rashidian, and Sam Thielman work at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, a research and teaching center based at Columbia Journalism School.

TOP IMAGE: Photo: Adobe Stock