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Covering Whistleblowers: 6 Tips for Journalists

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The formal impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump came after a whistleblower accused Trump of using his position to pressure the Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a top 2020 Democratic presidential contender.

Throughout history, whistleblowers have played an important role in bringing corruption, fraud, waste, and other improprieties to light worldwide. But journalists face serious challenges in doing this kind of reporting, especially when it involves world leaders and the federal intelligence community.

To help newsrooms fine-tune their strategies for covering whistleblowing complaints, we asked for advice from veteran journalists, journalism faculty, and scholars who study whistleblowing behavior. We also turned to advocacy organizations that work to protect and defend whistleblowers.

Here are six tips we put together, based on their collective insights.

1. Before revealing details about a whistleblower’s identity, consider whether the value of reporting that information outweighs the harm the whistleblower and others might face.

“I’m not a fan of identifying whistleblowers. These are people for the most part who are trying to do the right thing, but are afraid or concerned about their careers or worse,” says Matthew Carroll, a journalism professor at Northeastern University who won a Pulitzer Prize and a Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2003 as part of a team at The Boston Globe that wrote about sexual abuse among Catholic priests.

Carroll pointed to a statement Trump had made in September suggesting the whistleblower is “almost a spy,” as a reason why the whistleblower who came forward about Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president “definitely should be concerned.”

“Trump stated the whistleblower is ‘almost a spy,’ and referenced how spies were handled in the past,” Carroll says. “It’s not entirely clear what he [meant], but in the past spies have been executed or given long prison sentences.”

Xuhong Su, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina who researches why there are so few whistleblowers in corrupt settings, stresses that anonymity “is of paramount importance for both protecting whistleblowers, but also in the long run, to incentivize more acting whistleblowers along the road.” Su criticized The New York Times’ decision to publish details about the identity of the whistleblower whose accusations against Trump prompted Democrats to pursue an impeachment inquiry.

2. Don’t focus on why whistleblowers come forward.

Vladimir Radomirovic, editor-in-chief of Pistaljka, an online investigative outlet that reports on corruption in Serbia, says his newsroom focuses on what whistleblowers disclose — not their motives. “For us, it is the information they provide that is key,” he says. “We judge the documents, not the whistleblower.”

Radomirovic has worked with hundreds of whistleblowers since founding the news outlet in 2010.

“More often than not, it is exactly the motives of a whistleblower that are being investigated by their employer, the government, or the press, and not the wrongdoing they reported,” he explains. “Journalists should be aware of this and avoid targeting whistleblowers.”

3. Understand the differences between whistleblowers and “leakers.”

A few years ago, the Society of Professional Journalists worked with the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower protection and advocacy organization, to create a guide to educate journalists about whistleblowers. The 36-page guide outlines the differences between a whistleblower and a so-called “leaker” – two terms that, according to the guide, “are often used interchangeably as a way of discrediting the source of potentially-damning information.”

In the US, whistleblowers generally are protected by law from retaliation, but sometimes risk their careers and safety to share what they know.

“Leakers release information about the inner workings of the government agency or corporation they work for, often for political gain, to curry favor, or to test policies,” the guide explains. “Whistleblowers are workers who release information that shows serious wrongdoing, mismanagement, waste, or other abuses of public trust.”

4. Have a strategy for secure communication.

Reporters who use digital tools to communicate with and receive data and documents from sources must take steps to defend their online activities from security threats such as hacking, surveillance, and phishing attacks. The Committee to Protect Journalists offers detailed guidance on this topic in its Digital Safety Kit.

Two ways to provide security for whistleblowers: Use messaging apps such as Signal and WhatsApp, which offer end-to-end encryption, and use software that encrypts email.

5. Familiarize yourself with the whistleblower protection laws that apply to the whistleblower you’re reporting on.

Read up on and ask a legal expert to explain whistleblower protection laws, which vary. “From the False Claims Act to the Dodd-Frank Act, an extensive legal framework surrounds whistleblower protection in the United States,” explains the National Whistleblower Center in a tip sheet it created for journalists. “Whistleblower rights depend on the procedures set forth in over 50 different federal laws and countless state laws.”

The National Whistleblower Center, founded by three whistleblower attorneys, points out that a different set of rules govern federal intelligence employees.

“The Whistleblower Protection Act protects public employees’ rights to speak out about misconduct,” it notes in its tipsheet. “For those who work in the intelligence community, where the information is usually sensitive or secret, their rights are more limited. They can blow the whistle up the chain of command and to an agency’s inspector general, but they are rarely permitted to go beyond that.”

6. Know where to go for help understanding whistleblowing issues.

Numerous organizations across the US and world provide resources and support to whistleblowers and journalists who work with them. We’ve already mentioned several. Here are some others:

This updated article first appeared in Journalist’s Resource and is reproduced here with permission.

Denise-Marie Ordway is managing editor of Journalist’s Resource. She previously worked as a reporter for newspapers and radio stations in the US and Central America, including the Orlando Sentinel and Philadelphia Inquirer. She was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2013 for an investigative series she led on hazing and other problems at Florida A&M University.

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