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link to published version: IEEE Computer, May, 2013

accesses since March 28, 2013

Computing Technology and Survivable Journalism

Hal Berghel

Too much attention is being paid to the survival of the business of journalism, and not enough attention to the survival of journalists. The real problem we should be addressing is not whether click-and-banner or pay wall business models are optimal, but whether the next generation of journalists will be able to effectively practice their profession. Ironically, the very technology that the media pundits suggest may get journalism out of the hole, may actually be making the hole deeper.


E_journalist Annalee Newitz' recent talk at the 27 th Chaos Communication Conference articulates what I will label the “received view” of modern journalism: recent technology advances are rendering traditional print media-based journalism impotent and as a consequence future jobs in journalism will require increased technical and IT skills. No news there. But she predicts an interesting new mix of future jobs for journalists: hacker-journalists (that fill roles analogous to those of early war photographers, data-mining reporters (like muckrakers a century earlier), and crowd engineers (serving functions like pollsters and census takers). Good information for future journalists seeking jobs. But this assumes that there will be jobs to be had and people willing to take them. Will there be a future for genuine investigative journalism? Is there a future for genuine investigative journalists? I'll share some of my concerns below.


As I write this column, cyberspace is a-twitter over a misunderstanding between legendary Washington Post reporter, Bob Woodward, and current Director of the National Economic Council, Gene Sperling. It seems that Woodward attributed authorship of the 2012 budget sequestration concept to the White House, and Sperling responded via email “…I think you will regret staking out that claim.” Prior to Watergate, such an exchange would have been easily blended into the stew of Washington hubris and hyperbole, but no longer. Now journalists are much more sensitive to subtle signals and threats.

The Watergate story has been so carefully documented by this time that it has taken on the character of an epic saga. Here's a shorthand account that touches on the events relevant to this column: Associate FBI Director William Mark Felt (aka “Deep Throat”) aided Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their investigation that uncovered illegal activities associated with the Presidency of Richard Nixon including, but not limited to, burglary, illegal wiretapping, money laundering, obstruction of justice, perjury, and misuse of public funds, to name but a few. The Nixon administration responded to the charges with denials and threats, including the threat to prosecute Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein under the 1917 Espionage Act - the same law that sent the Rosenbergs to the electric chair, put Samuel Loring Morison in prison, and currently being used to prosecute Bradley Manning. This is not the kind of law that one wants to get on the wrong side of – whether soldier, spy, journalist, or Jehova's Witness for that matter. It is in this context that one must understand the Sperling-Woodward's exchange.

Fortunately for the journalists, the Washington Post was secure enough financially and strong enough politically to deflect attacks from the White House. But just to be on the safe side, Editor-in-Chief Ben Bradlee had Woodward and Bernstein give their notes to Publisher Katharine Graham for safekeeping (his so called “grandmother defense”). He believed that Graham was both too influential for the Nixon administration to take on, and would be too sympathetic for a jury to convict. (One may recall Attorney General John Mitchell's infamous warning to Bradlee that Katie Graham would end up with certain body parts in a wringer over this). This illustrates just how high the stakes were in reporting government misconduct even in the days of relatively unobstructed journalism. It is also worth noting that Nixon was but one security guard and a few tape recordings (aka “smoking gun”) away from repudiable denial and avoidance of three articles of impeachment!

Journalism since Watergate has become more dramaturgic, orchestrated, undifferentiated, and uninspired. Independent newspaper publishers and media outlets are harder to find these days. And as time has shown, investigative journalism is not the ideal manservant to global corporate interests. Investigative journalism is losing out to agenda-based and stakeholder-friendly reporting. That worries me. But not nearly as much as the threat to the journalists, themselves

As Newitz observes, journalism is becoming net-centric. This is both blessing and curse – the latter because journalists haven't mastered the tools of the networked world – especially those that may protect them. While there are some state protections for journalists, the law of the land is still Branzburg v. Hayes where the U.S. Supreme Court held that there is no First Amendment privilege that automatically accrues to reporters - either testimonial or to protect their sources. The fact that federal courts have considerable latitude in interpreting Branzburg has, in and of itself, had a chilling effect on journalists who report on controversial topics or challenge established authority. Consider, for example, the case of Valerie Plame where at least four members of the recent Bush administration outed her as an undercover CIA agent – a clear cut violation of Title VI of the National Security Act of 1947 (aka the Intelligence Identities Protection Act). The only person to serve jail time as a result of “Plamegate” was a New York Times reporter who covered the story – for failing to disclose her sources!

Recently, blogger Josh Wolf was imprisoned for seven months for failing to turn over his home movies of a protest at a G8 summit. San Francisco Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada were sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for refusing to name sources on the Balco steroids baseball scandal. The fact that the government is willing to incarcerate reporters over scandals in our national pastime shows the extent of the problem that journalists face. The office of Bush Attorney General Aberto Gonzales argued that the Espionage act may be used to prosecute individuals who distribute information “not to foreign governments or spies but to ‘persons not entitled to receive it.'” - i.e., investigative reporters!

As chilling as Branzburg is, it pales in comparison to the journalists' extra-judicial threats. In some areas of the world, journalists are murdered with impunity- and this is not limited to failed states and regions in conflict, but includes countries that claim to be democratic by Western standards, e.g., Brazil, Ecuador, and Turkey, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists 2012 Risk List. At this point, there are approximately one hundred journalists murdered each year. And even if a journalist is spared death, their lives and careers can be ruined if the subject of their reporting is a government or powerful business interest, e.g., Gary Webb who reported on the CIA involvement in Iran/Contra and the LA crack epidemic; Donald Woods who reported on the murder, and subsequent cover up, of Steven Biko in South Africa, Nick Davies who was brought before a Parliamentary review panel for breaking the News of the World phone hacking scandal, etc. While wealth and celebrity may insulate contrarians from persecution, journalistic license doesn't count for much these days. Don Henley can take on Rupert Murdoch in song without effect, but not a reporter for The Guardian. Even Helen Thomas, Phil Donahue, and Dan Rather lost their positions over personal expression.


So, the current mantra of media critics and commentators is that the new standard bearers of post-Watergate journalism are online. There's no denying that citizen journalism, blogs, news portals, subscription-push services and the like can be valuable immediate news sources. But they may also be sources of misinformation, propaganda, bias, and hate-mongering (cf. . The media critic's mantra ignores the enormous value that is added to a story by a large newsroom of dedicated professional journalists. Without them as a filter, every online reader will have to hold a black belt in what Howard Rheingold calls the ‘art of crap detection'. The hoi polloi is not capable of rising to this challenge. And the suggestion that online fact checkers can take up the verification slack is misguided: (a) the public isn't willing to invest the time to use them properly, (b) there is no easy way to vet them, and (c) in principle, they're no more reliable than the original sources. The Internet is truth and value neutral. It is no more a conduit for honesty and justice than the loudspeaker. The benefit of the Internet is convenient, rapid access to data – determination whether the data is reliable or valuable, true or false is a non-technological issue that needs to be determined independently.

My point here is that too much attention is being paid to the survival of the business of journalism, and not enough attention to the survival of journalists. The real problem we should be addressing is not whether click-and-banner or pay wall business models are optimal, but whether the next generation of journalists will be able to effectively practice their profession. Ironically, the very technology that the media pundits suggest may get journalism out of the hole, may actually be making the hole deeper. Consider the following:


  1. Avoid prosecution under Branzburg v. Hayes, the 1917 Espionage Act, and the Patriot Act
  2. Avoid National Security Letters
  3. Avoid administrative subpoenas
  4. Avoid being placed on TSA no fly and selectee lists
  5. Avoid having passport revoked
  6. Avoid 24/7 surveillance
  7. Avoid barratry/ SLAPP lawsuits
  8. Avoid incarceration
  9. Avoid exile
  10. Sustain themselves for a long enough time to develop a story

All but the last three are potential threat vectors for future journalists that involve modern technology indirectly. Absent a sudden and unexpected reversal in the direction that the Congress and Supreme Court are headed, technology will have to play a part in sustaining the health and well-being of investigative journalism.

It would be foolish to believe that repeated Freedom of Information Requests about sensitive topics (both in terms of national security and politics!) will go unnoticed and unrecorded. It should also be remembered that the Bush-approved NSA warrantless wiretap didn't end when the Bush administration ceased warrantless wiretapping in 2007, Congress simply amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 2008 to accommodate without a Presidential Executive Order (albeit with some minimal restrictions added like requiring the agency to request approval from FISA court within 7 days or the evidence may be inadmissible.) It has been widely reported that the FBI has asked Congress to extend CALEA to require ISPs and social network, Web e-mail, and VoIP providers to provide the FBI with a “surveillance backdoor.” ( ) , with the end of having every application and service shipped “wiretap ready.” Is this the kind of environment that will nurture and sustain investigative reporting?

So, to counter these sorts of threats, the future journalist will have to be much more sophisticated in his/her use of technology – but not in the sense that Annalee Newitz meant. To meet the grand challenges they may need some ‘grand skillsets.'


  1. The use of anonymizers
  2. The use of remailers
  3. A commitment to email whole-message-encryption
  4. The commitment to endpoint file encryption
  5. The ability to get credit/compensation for non-attributable bylines
  6. A background in criminal law and close working relationships with successful first amendment attorneys

1.-4. raises the bar on privacy protection – not just for journalists, but for everyone. At this writing, the Tor implementation of onion routing is the anonymizing service of choice. Though frequently thwarted by foreign governments like China and Iran, and an occasional western intelligence service to be sure, it is still the benchmark for secure use of the Internet. Remailers work in a similar fashion to anonymizers. In both cases the technology defines a communications architecture that conceals relationships between participants and contents. Anonymizing services are viable if, at a minimum, they employ forward secrecy, reply blocks, chaining, strong encryption and do not use logs or identity lists. Endpoint file encryption should be in use in all computer systems. It goes without saying that the future journalist will have to understand how various privacy-preserving environments work because not all are optimal at any given moment, and all are vulnerable to attack. There are many slips twixt cup and lip in the privacy biz.

In the future the telling a story may become less important than maintaining personal anonymity after the telling. Bylines currently make reporters big targets for those that would do them harm: drug-cartels, revolutionaries, criminals, authoritarian/dictatorial governments, and the like. This can only get worse in time unless the world takes an about-turn toward “playing nice.” Journalists would be well-advised to build some measure of anonymity into compensation/rewards structure – just in case. And it never hurts to “lawyer up.”


Neil Postman compared George Orwell and Aldous Huxley this way: “What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.” The modern paradigm of this Orwell/Huxley dystopia is not limited to places like North Korea and Eritrea where there is nothing approaching objective journalism at all. Traces abound.

It should be understood that the importance of the fourth estate of which Edmund Burke and Thomas Carlyle were so enamored is neither universally recognized nor valued. And this lack of appreciation is not limited to failed states and dictatorial regimes. It has little appeal with those who favor intrusive governments that view a free press as outside constitutionally mandated systems of checks and balances. For them, the prosecution of journalists who may seek to expose political wrongdoing in is consistent with their view of democracy.

The dystopia that Orwell and Huxley described needs to be amended to include a technological framework for journalists. If objective journalism is to survive, we may need to shift the discussion away from media companies that cater to their marketing departments and are preoccupied on profits and revenues, to a discussion of how we need to protect the journalists that make the enterprise viable. The defensive measures mentioned above are a start. If computing technology is to help save the day, journalists will have to ratchet-up their skill levels and computing professionals will have to be more sensitive to their future needs.

This is also a good time for journalists to start supporting the technology that will help sustain their industry. Focused, genuinely inter-disciplinary journalism informatics programs are a start, along with J-school affinity groups like “Journalists for Tor” or “Anonymizers R Us”? But most of the needed momentum will be produced by an appreciation of the problem.


Annalee Newitz ( is a freelance writer and lead editor the science fiction and science blog. From 1999 to 2008 she wrote the syndicated column, Techsploitation ( A copy of her 27C3 talk may be found at . Lindsay Oberst offers a similar perspective ( ). Hal Varian provides some useful information on the economics of journalism at .

For an extensive analysis of Branzburg and the Reporter Shield Laws (or absence thereof), see Leslie Siegel's “ Trampling on the Fourth Estate: The Need for a Federal Reporter Shield Law Providing Absolute Protection Against Compelled Disclosure of News Sources and Information” ( ) .

For more information on the threats against journalists, see the Knight Center's Website, Journalism in the Americas ( ), the Committee to Protect Journalists ( ), and Reporters without Borders ( ). The London School of Economics has an interesting site on Media Policy ( ). More on Attorney General Gonzales interpretation of the Espionage act may be found in Derigan Silver's article at from which I extracted the quotation.

Online fact checkers fall under the category of trusted source networks. ‘Trust' should be used with care in this context. Some of the more popular sites are the Annenberg Public Policy Centers site (http:// ) and that of the Washington Post ( ). Columnist Glenn Kessler's also has a Fact Checker column in the Washington Post). At this writing the Washington Post has a prototype multimedia version online at . This prototype is not quite ready for prime time, but the concept is superb. A meta-level fact checking source is available from the Poynter Institute at . A more democratic “smart mob” approach toward fact checking might be a useful addition. The challenge here would be to develop the aggregating and filtering technology. Howard Rheingold describes such things in his book of the same name. Rheingold also offers a mini-course in Crap Detection that is well worth the time to watch: . On Rheingold's view, Crap Detection is a core literacy skill along with attention, participation, cooperation, and network awareness.