What Journalists Need to Know About Whistleblowers

Most journalists are familiar with whistleblowers from working with anonymous sources. No two are alike and their stories are rarely simple.

Whistleblowing is defined under law as “disclosing information that you reasonably believe is evidence of a violation of any law, rule, or regulation, or gross mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.”

Whistleblowers are protected by a network of laws, but the level of protection depends on what they disclose, to whom, and how. It may not always be in the whistleblower’s interest to work with the press. Journalists working with insiders, or covering them, will produce stronger stories and treat sources more fairly if they know how whistleblowing works.

The National Whistleblower Center offers these tips:

1. Know the laws

If you are writing about whistleblowers, familiarize yourself with the protection laws. There is no universal whistleblower law. From the False Claims Act to the Dodd-Frank Act to the Whistleblower Protection Act, an extensive legal framework surrounds whistleblower protection in the United States. Whistleblower rights depend on the procedures set forth in over 50 different federal laws and countless state laws.

Know that those in the private sector may not have the same rewards and protections that federal whistleblowers may have.

2. Protect Anonymity 

Anonymity can be an essential element of a successful whistleblower case and offers possible protection from reprisals. In the digital age, revealing the name or identity of a source by mistake can be easy. Take extra precautions when handling communications or meeting whistleblowers. Confidentiality can be breached in numerous ways, and sources need to know what the risks are. Be transparent about steps taken to protect anonymity. The Society for Professional Journalists offers a guide for journalists on protecting sources, and the National Whistleblower Center has put together a guide on digital best practices for whistleblowers.

3. Know what is at stake for the whistleblower

Understand the implications of public whistleblowing. Whistleblowers often experience retaliation for doing the right thing.  They are demoted, fired, shunned by co-workers and harassed as disloyal. Good evaluations turn bad. Careers are ruined. Many can never work in their industry or profession again. Advocates across the board recommend that whistleblowers get a lawyer before they take any action. Learn to work with their legal representation. Lawyers can limit access to whistleblowers, but they can be a resource too.

4. Intelligence whistleblowers have their own set of rules

While the Whistleblower Protection Act protects public employees’ rights to speak out about misconduct, it does not apply to members of the intelligence committee, since they work in a classified environment where the information is usually sensitive or secret. For those who work in the intelligence community, 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.

5. Leaking v. Whistleblowing

Leaking can go beyond whistleblowing. It often involves the unauthorized release of sensitive material, some of it valuable to the public. Federal agencies have specific offices that can lawfully accept whistleblower disclosures and have an obligation to investigate them. However, if a whistleblower leaks classified information or other sensitive material to the news media, they can be charged with a crime. Again, know the laws. Last summer, National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Reality Winner  went to prison after she was identified as the leak of information on the Russian election hack  that was reported by the Intercept.

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