Whistleblowers Might Be Your Best Sources

December 3, 2008

Whistleblowers can be a reporter's best friend — although friends that must often be handled with care. If you know a federal agency employee who tells you "Call me on January 21" — be sure to do it.

There is a network of whistleblower sources that environmental reporters might do well to know about. Why? Perhaps the most important reason is that they want to share with news media and the public exactly the information which the government does not want people to know.

Legendary newsman Bill Moyers puts it this way: "I came to see that news is what people want to keep hidden, and everything else is publicity."

One of the first things to remember is that the federal "Whistleblower Protection Act" does NOT protect whistleblowers. That is a long story, told elsewhere, that we will pass by here. See WatchDogs of June 15, 2005, and Oct. 6, 2005. Bottom Line: If you want your source to trust you with information, you must protect your source.

You also must protect your readers. Not every whistleblower is telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Document. Cross-check. Verify.

Here are some key sources you might want to check in with if you are looking for whistleblowers on the environmental beat.

Scientific and professional societies may prove a connection to whistleblowers. For example, a coalition of such groups has advocated freedom to speak for scientists at certain federal environmental agencies. They include, for example, the Society for Conservation Biology, Society of American Foresters, Union of Concerned Scientists, and the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy.

Likewise, the unions that represent federal and state employees may also be aware of whistleblowers. They are often the last resort for employees who may face losing their job in retaliation for exposing fraud, waste, or abuse.