How to share a tip with a journalist

Thinking about tipping off a journalist or becoming a source? Are images of Deep Throat and dark parking garages coming to mind? They might be, but in reality a news tip doesn’t have to be earth-shattering for a reporter to be interested in it. Our news landscape today is infused with millions of stories of everyday people. Sharing information from your own corner of the world can contribute to a vibrant democracy. When you share your stories, you ensure that the voices of everyday people are heard as loudly as the voices of companies who pay public relations firms to send out press releases for them or hire PR firms for access to the media. Of course, there are some things to think about before you contact the local newspaper or New York Times to share an anonymous tip. Some questions you can consider:

  • Why are you specifically qualified to speak to something?

  • Do you have any external data to back up what you’re sharing?

  • Why is it important that the public learn about this?

  • What are your motivations in sharing this information?

  • Are you bringing information to light that hasn't been reported on before?

The information you have to share doesn’t need to be the subject of a front page expose. It could be an experience or anecdote that you think could enrich the way the media is already reporting on a topic. You might be:

  • An expert

  • A person with unique knowledge of a situation

  • An observer

  • Someone who has experienced something relevant to a current news cycle

  • A whistleblower

When you decide you are ready to share something, the first thing to consider is how you want to share the information. You may want to set up a phone call, share photos or documents, or send a message to a journalist, but before you do any of that, it’s worth considering whether this information is sensitive, and if you need to protect yourself. If you could get in trouble for sharing the information you have, it is best to take a few precautions before you communicate with a reporter. First, never use any work device or office or workplace wifi to research journalists. Don’t forward work emails or download documents from work computers or on work wifi or networks - and be cognizant that your workplace can know if and when you viewed a document on Google docs or Airtable. An IT team could theoretically do forensic analysis and discover that you forwarded or downloaded information. Instead, take photos on a non-work device if you need to copy a document. You can also use tools like Exiftool to remove the metadata from a photo or video, meaning that no one can trace your device or location by scanning the picture you sent. If your information is sensitive, use only end-to-end encrypted messaging platforms to communicate with a reporter (examples of these are Signal or WhatsApp). End-to-end encryption means that only the end recipient can decrypt or decipher the contents of your message. With Signal, the contents of your message won’t even live on a server - and you can set messages to “self-destruct” after a few minutes, a few days, or a few weeks. If you do use WhatsApp, make sure that your messages don’t back up to your iCloud, and request the same of the person you are communicating with. Secure Drop is another option for the most sensitive of information transfer, but it requires you downloading the Tor browser. If you’re not concerned about the contents of your message, most journalists have their emails readily accessible online, and you can reach out. But make sure to think about why what you’re sharing might add important context or color to the media landscape, and what makes you uniquely poised to comment on it. Regardless of whether your information is sensitive or not, make sure to set the terms for your conversations with journalists. You can ask that the conversation be:

  • Off the record, which means the information you are providing is not for publication, but can be used without your name to verify its veracity with another source;

  • On background, meaning the information you provide can be used, but your name not used directly; or

  • On the record, which means anything you say in the conversation can be used and attributed to you using your name and job title. Keep in mind that you should only go on the record if you're sharing information you feel comfortable attaching your name to, and don't have any qualms about being in the public eye.

Lioness can also help you with this process free-of-charge. Simply use the form you can find here to submit your story and ask any questions you might have about the process.

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