Credit: Image by Moyan_Bren on Flickr. Some rights reserved

Laws allowing journalists to protect confidential sources where sensitive information is concerned have enabled many public interest stories to come to light which may otherwise have not been reported.

However, the digital age poses many new challenges to the protection of journalistic sources, not least because data stored online is of course more vulnerable to hackers and government surveillance.

Today at the World News Media Congress, the World Editors Forum revealed an 11-point framework for assessing how sources should be protected in the digital age.

It includes recommendations that source protection should not "entail registration or licensing of practitioners of journalism" and international recognition of "the value to the public interest of source protection".

Earlier this year, a Pew Research Center survey of 671 members of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) found that 64 per cent believed it was likely the US government had collected data about their phone calls, emails or other online communications.

However, Amy Mitchell, Pew's director of journalism research, noted that this sense of surveillance was not preventing journalists from pursuing stories in the public interest, also speaking at the World News Media Congress today.

"Only three per cent said it had kept them from pursuing a story, but they are in many cases changing the way they're sharing or saving sensitive documents," she explained.

Some 42 per cent of IRE members also said they were not sure of the steps their organisations were taking to protect data and sensitive information.

This ties into a "sense of uncertainty" across the industry of how to protect data and what tools to use in order to do so, said Mitchell.

Half of IRE members surveyed said they didn't use any security tools, while some said they purposefully don't, because they feel doing so might "raise a flag, that perhaps they should be watched and their data should be collected".

The recommendations published today are part of a study investigating the protection of journalistic sources in 121 countries around the world currently being undertaken by the World Editors Forum.

Early findings of the research paper, Protecting Journalism Sources in the Digital Age, show that more than 100 of these countries have had some form of source protection in place since 2007.

However, these frameworks are currently at risk from national security and anti-terrorism legislation.

The rapid pace at which technology is developing also means these frameworks are already outdated when it comes to regulating the collection and use of digital data.

To read the full recommendations, view a PDF of the report.

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