Handle With Care: Endangered Sources

By Baylea O’Brien

To this day, the only physical trace reporter Matthew Frank has of his whistleblower is a white envelope he found sitting on his desk one afternoon. Containing classified documents, the envelope sent Frank on a two-year investigation uncovering allegations against police officers in Lake County, Montana.

Nowadays, with leaks more often occurring online than by snail mail, journalists’ hard drives conceal a plethora of sensitive documents and transcriptions. Although whistleblowers tend to look over their shoulders when releasing incriminating documents, they’re not the only ones being monitored.

In the past year, federal investigators obtained cell phone records of two Associated Press reporters, exposing an anonymous whistleblower whose identity the reporters were trying to protect.

While Montana hasn’t seen such a scandal yet, Frank and other local journalists are watching the horizon.

Keila Szpaller, a reporter for the Missoulian, a Montana daily, is leery of the effects data gathering and surveillance might have on reporters as well as sources.

“People, at the very least, will be more cautious,” Szpaller said, “and at worst, refuse to share information in fear of retribution.”

Szpaller, who covers city hall, has witnessed sources shred information in front of her and taken their calls from various phone numbers so they could avoid being linked to leaks. Szpaller tries to meet her sources halfway.

“When I have had sources express caution, I met them in person,” she said. “I have gone so far as to meet someone at my private residence.”

Although Szpaller has yet to have any of her files hacked, she worries the possibility will make sources reluctant to share information and create further obstacles for journalists protecting sources.

While the public adapts to ubiquitous data gathering on multiple fronts, reporters still need to uphold their creed to accurately inform the public and diligently research leads, whether the information comes in an email, a phone call, or a white envelope.

Baylea O’Brien is a University of Montana senior. Her passion for traveling and international issues has taken her from the Middle East to New York City, where she interned for Seventeen magazine.