Can we ever ensure source identity?


Earlier this week, President Barack Obama’s tweets got hacked by the Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), which has recently hacked other high-profile accounts as well. Though the hack was minor, it is still discomforting.

Disregarding the danger that other countries could infiltrate American government technology, what is disconcerting is this reminder for journalists, and everyone, to be cautious with sources.

If you are interviewing Barack Obama in person, you can probably be sure that it’s really him.  But if you ask a random person on the street for an opinion, can you really be sure he’s giving you his correct name?  Even if you had the time, how would you begin researching him?

How can we tell that our sources are who they say they are?  If they are not high-profile, how can we tell if our sources are real at all?  I wish I had an answer to these questions, but I don’t.  I do have some ideas about how to have the best chance of having reliable sources, and they’re basically common sense.

If possible, meet with your source in person. If you can’t, a video chat or phone call would be the next best things, respectively.  At least you can make judgments about authenticity of speech.  Relying on only textual (i.e., email) communication should be a last resort, but sometimes, you cannot avoid it. Use your best judgment and be careful.  The same goes with using websites and online information. These points are pretty obvious to any journalist, but they are important to remember.

This brings me back to the constant fear that sources, especially online ones, may be unreliable.  The best we can do is always be wary of this possibility, and the chance that, for instance, a website may have been hacked or someone else may have authored an e-mail.  If someone can hack the president’s Twitter account, imagine what else can be hacked.

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