Should journalists use anonymous secret-sharing apps?
Whisper, an app that allows anonymous users to post content to the app, could provide journalists with valuable information. But when and how should media outlets make use of the app?
Photo illustration by Skye Anderson
By Skye Anderson
There’s a big difference between gossip mongering and journalism. But where there is smoke, there is often a fire and it’s imperative journalists check.
Enter the popular anonymous secret-sharing app Whisper.
The Nieman Journalism Lab, a website focused on helping journalism figure out its future in the Internet age, published an article last month discussing how Whisper, which allows anonymous users to post content to the app, could provide journalists with valuable information.
However, if journalists use this app as a source and do not follow through by tracking down those sources to verify their actual identities, they could lower the credibility of the profession.
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At Mount Royal University, the Calgary Journal’s code of ethics clearly states that using anonymous sources is frowned upon. Our journalism professors stress the importance of being honest and upfront in all our stories, and all information must come from trustworthy and credible sources.
But the Whisper app does not provide such credible sources. The information is posted by anonymous users, and according to the application’s website, it provides a forum to “share secrets, express yourself and meet new people.”
Of course, hearing someone’s innermost secrets is intriguing and can certainly give you a sense of what is happening in our world. But who is to say the posts are true?
Although there have been no reports of Canadian journalists using the app, the topic is raising questions in the journalism community. In February, the Toronto Star published an article about the Whisper app, questioning how credible or trustworthy it is for both the app’s users and for newsrooms.
In addition, Tim Currie, assistant professor of online journalism at University of King’s College, in Halifax, said there isn’t “anything particularly unethical about the apps themselves—it's all in how one uses them.”
“So, reporting a news story based solely on information posted by an anonymous user would be pretty lousy journalism,” he said. “But journalists can use posts made in these apps as a starting point for their research.”
The Nieman Journalism Lab article, How some journalists are using some anonymous secret-sharing apps, by Caroline O’Donovan, said that people have openly admitted to posting false information on forums, just to mislead journalists.
And the fact that Whisper wants to start its own newsroom, focused on sifting through the information posted through the app, seems like a waste of time and effort. Perhaps there would be one breaking story once in a while found after some investigative reporting, but think of how many other breaking stories could have been discovered elsewhere during that time—stories with credibility and backbone.
Jason Van Rassel, justice and social issues reporter for the Calgary Herald, is also skeptical.
“If this is not used properly, it could damage the credibility of journalism,” Van Rassel said. He also said since the app is so new, it is largely unproven, and the quality of the information remains unreliable.
Hugo Rodrigues, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, said that “in cases where we do receive anonymous tips, we have to rigorously work to confirm the information in the tip. So while we may never know the identity of our tipster, we do have to put the legwork into verifying everything they tell us.”
However, Rodrigues brings up another valid point with which I agree. If journalists in the future decide to use posts from and users of apps like Whisper as sources, the user’s anonymity could be jeopardized.
“The thing journalists do need to be careful of whenever they're exchanging information online with a source whose identity they're protecting is that these things are traceable,” Rodrigues said. “So while Whisper is anonymous, anyone with the drive and know-how, or the lawyers and money, could find out an IP [Internet Protocol address] for the person on the other end.”
Calgary Journal reporter Skye Anderson has completed her second year of journalism at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
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