A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Tip Sheet: Working with Whistleblowers

By Quill

When someone approaches a journalist and wants to blow the whistle on corruption, the next steps can be a tricky.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told Quill some of her best tips for reporters working with a whistle-blower on a sensitive story.

Be clear. Your source needs to know what you are willing to do to protect his or her identity, and what the ground rules are for your collaboration on the story.

Use disposable cell phones. Provide your source with a disposable phone and the number to yours, and then toss both phones after the interview.

Don’t keep notes on your work computer. While you may be committed to protecting your source’s identity even during an investigation, your employer may not be. If you kept your notes on your work computer, the company could turn them over to the investigation.

Don’t keep reports on file after the article is finished. If possible, throw out the reports you kept for a sensitive story after you’ve completed the piece. For broadcast journalists, this means recycling video or deleting digital outtakes. Governments can’t subpoena what you don’t have.

Consider publishing everything. An opposing option to throwing away your story reports is to publish all of them instead. After a story has been prepared and posted, you and your news organization could choose to put all photos or video not included in the official package online anyway. This can prevent a subpoena, since you have posted all the information you had already and therefore have nothing to hide.

Do not ignore a subpoena. Contact your managers immediately after you are subpoenaed. You must respond to it. If a judge orders you to testify, you must appear in court even if you plan to refuse the mandate.

Get help. If you are involved in an investigation or court case over a story you have written, don’t go it alone. For reporters working for a news organization, talk to your company about handling the case. For independent journalists, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press can help you find a pro bono lawyer. SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund can be of financial assistance, too.