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How journalists can work with whistleblowers and protect sources

Leonard Downie Jr, far right, moderates the 2013 IRE Conference's showcase panel with, Michael Oreskes of the Associated Press, Lucy Dalglish of the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism, author James Bamford and journalist Quinn Norton. The panel was one of several at the conference focused on leaks and whistleblowers. Photo by Travis Hartman.

By Perla Arellano and Erin Griffin

Pia Malbran of CBS News, David Corn from Mother Jones and Angie Moreschi from James Hoyer Law Firm discussed the relationship between journalists and whistleblowers and offered advice for protecting sources at the recent IRE Conference in San Antonio.

Moreschi explained the typical process of a whistleblower, she said, is see a red flag, report, and face retaliation.

When journalists are dealing with whistleblowers, they need to understand their motive, Malbran said. That motive is often frustration: the rules are being violated and concerns are being ignored. To the whistleblower, the information he or she is providing is very important.

“They are risking their career, their lives in order to be able to expose what they feel the public needs to know,” she said. 

If you cannot verify the informaiton, you should make every attempt to verify the source (the whistleblower):

  • Do background checks
  • Continually ask them if there is anything you need to know
  • Show compassion, they just want to be listened to.
  • Have face to face meetings. If that is not possible, buy disposable phones to give to the source in order to communicate
  • Do not promise you can protect them, but promise them you will do your best to provide a platform they can share their information.
  • Ask them to think: If this goes live, how will it affect you? What are you up against? Tell them you can help them find a lawyer. Take the time to get to know the whistleblower lawyers in your area.

David Corn of Mother Jones talked about Scott Prouty, a whistleblower who came forward as the person who shot the “47 percent” video of Mitt Romney. He said that what Prouty had to go through was a psychological progress.

Corn said he talked to Prouty of what could happen if his identity was discovered.

“Think about what this would do to your life immediately,” Corn said he told Prouty.

Perla Arellano is a student at Amarillo College. Erin Griffin is a student at the University of Texas.

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