ARTICLE: Chat apps bring journalists new possibilities, but also dilemmas

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Mobile chat apps offer journalists new opportunities for interacting with sources, write Valerie Belair-Gagnon and Colin Agur, both of University of Minnesota, with Nicholas Frisch, of Yale University. The authors interviewed 34 foreign correspondents based in Hong Kong and China.

The authors recognized two areas of chat app use, taking place either in open or in closed networks. In the “open” mode, journalists monitor and participate in conversations that take place in publicly accessible, un-encrypted discussion groups. Operating in this area, however, leaves the communications under the threat of surveillance.

“Closed networks” refer to one-on-one discussions or restricted access groups on encrypted applications (e.g. Telegram). Many of the interviewed journalists would prefer these secure means of communications. The sources, instead, are often intimidated by the journalists’ requests of continuing a conversation through more secure channels, as this underscores the risks involved with talking to journalists.

Because of the aforementioned backlash from sources, journalists may allow useful conversations to progress within open networks. Some interviewees found it useful to “hide in plain sight”, while others were so afraid of putting their sources in harms way that they had entirely removed open network chat apps from their devices.

The article “Mobile sourcing” was published by the journal Mobile Media & Communication. It is available online on the publisher’s website (abstract free).

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