How to Interview Subjects Who Are Supposed to Stay in the Shadows

By Chris Adams

Shane Harris talks to a lot of people who probably shouldn’t talk to him.

A reporter for The Wall Street Journal and author of “@War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex,” Harris is skilled in contacting and talking with sources who need to conduct conversations on background or off-the-record.

In a video Q&A with the National Press Foundation, Harris laid out strategies reporters can employ to interview such sources – and to make sure they strive to keep those conversations private.

“We continue to have an obligation to protect sources – and it’s becoming more incumbent on us to educate our sources,” he said. “If somebody is reaching out to you with a method of technology that is not secure, you should say, ‘Let’s move this to a place that is a little more protected.’ ”

The need to protect sources has taken on a new urgency during the administration of Donald Trump, who has made clamping down on leaks a priority. At the same time, plenty of people within the federal government are talking with reporters, often to push back against new administration initiatives.

Harris gave reporters tips for maintaining reporter-source confidentiality. The first is to use encryption in communications – whether email or text messages; he also offered names of apps or platforms that can be used to encrypt (WhatsApp, Signal, ProtonMail, Tor). He uses some of those services regularly – even listing them on his Twitter profile.

Beyond that, reporters need to protect both themselves and their sources. And reporters need to remember that it’s not just the U.S. government they need to worry about – foreign governments are spying too.

Harris also gave tips for maintaining password security and for reporting overseas. As for password security: use what is known as two-factor authentication (which adds an extra step to the sign-on process) and don’t use the same password for different accounts. On foreign trips, use a clean laptop – maybe a new one, or at least not the one you normally use for work.

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