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Society of Professional Journalists: When Working with Whistleblowers Same Ethical Journalism Principles Apply

December 22, 2017
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“The power of whistleblowers to hold institutions and leaders accountable very often depends on the critical work of journalists, who verify whistleblowers’ disclosures and then bring them to the public,” a recently released guide by the Government Accountability Project reads.

The guide is a short read and focuses on what a whistleblower is, the laws that exist pertaining to them and tips when working on a story involving a whistleblower.

“Working with employee sources who are uniquely credible is a powerful way to access information, especially in this administration, which is clamping down on what is made publicly available,” Dana Gold, Director of Education for GAP said.

So, what is a whistleblower?

According to the guide, the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) defines a whistleblower as an employee who discloses information, internally or externally, they believe shows a violation of law, rule or regulation, gross mismanagement or waste of funds, abuse of power, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.

The WPA is the primary law that protects non-intelligence federal employees. When it comes to classified information or any information barred by statute from release, the WPA only protects disclosures made to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, agency Inspector General or any employee designated by an agency chief to receive them.

Gold said she wanted journalists to know whistleblowing when the person isn’t in the national security space or handling classified information, is not a crime. According to the guide, only a small percentage of whistleblowers work in the intelligence community.

“The narrative that this kind of behavior is illegal is an attempt to chill this behavior,” she said. “You have a right to disclose this information.”

Information highlighted in the 36-page guide includes:

  • More than 95% of whistleblowers try to solve the problem internally first, often only seeking external support after the problem fails to be addressed.
  • No single law protects employees who disclose evidence of serious wrongdoing, instead, there are more than 60 federal statutes, in addition to state and local laws.

Asking a source directly for classified documents can put a journalist at risk of prosecution. In the guide, GAP suggests journalists be careful even describing the information and how you obtained it.

Other tips in the guide focus on how you can work better with a whistleblower. The tips, which focus on trust, honesty, and transparency, are all core elements of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.

Gold said the main message she wanted to reach journalists is that her organization, GAP, and others are available as a resource for the journalist and the whistleblower.

“We wanted to find a way to protect and empower both the journalist and the employees,” she said. “Journalists are the front line of the most important part of our democracy.”

To contact GAP call their main phone number 202-457-0034. The call will be forwarded to the correct person.

Lynn Walsh is a freelance journalist, creating content focused on government accountability, public access to information and freedom of expression issues. She’s also helping to rebuild trust between newsrooms and the public through the Trusting News Project. Follow her on Twitter and send her an email to collaborate on a possible project or hire her.

Author: 
Lynn Walsh
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