Working with Leaks and Whistleblowers, Part One

May 9, 2017

WatchDog: Working with Leaks and Whistleblowers, Part One

EDITOR’S NOTE: In this two-part WatchDog series, we look at the hows and whys of working with leaks and whistleblowers. This week, why not to use anonymous sources, and finding sources, then building trust and establishing groundrules. Next week, some basic security measures, the importance of documents and the legal status of leaked information.

By Joseph A. Davis, WatchDog TipSheet Editor

Investigative journalists need to know how to handle confidential sources, who often are the ones blowing the whistle on government wrongdoing at considerable risk to themselves.

It’s even more important for journalists to know how to find and woo whistleblowers. That’s more of an art than a science. Any “how-to” advice must be filtered through your own judgment and value systems.

First, many good news outlets try hard to avoid depending on confidential sources as a matter of journalistic ethics. They believe their responsibility to document the facts they give their audience requires sources to be identified. This is good policy as far as it goes. More on this later.

But sometimes the only way a journalist can learn initially about a key fact or document is from a source who is anonymous, or who asks not to be named or identified. Leakers have been essential to an informed public. A key part of the journalist’s job at that point is to find other, on-the-record confirmation of the essential facts.

In today’s political environment, there may be less transparency about government decisions than in recent memory. Moreover, there may be more corruption and abuse of power than many have seen in years. Because the job of the journalist is to enlighten the public about government wrongdoing, whistleblowers and anonymous sources may be needed now more than ever.

Why not to use anonymous sources

If you are wondering whether you should use anonymous sourcing in your story, you probably shouldn’t. It is a slippery slope.

Matt Purdy, deputy executive editor of The New York Times, referred to anonymously sourced stories as potential “journalistic I.E.D.s.” The Times, which has been burned many times by stories hinging on anonymous sources, has tightened up its policy discouraging use of anonymous sources as recently as 2016.

Image: ©
Image: ©

Very few of us journalists, it turns out, are working on the level of Woodward and Bernstein. And even though they got good tips from “Deep Throat,” he mostly pointed them to things they then had to verify with conventional reporting and evidence.

The cultures of government and journalism tend to encourage overuse of anonymous sources in routine news stories where it is comfortable and unnecessary. Agency spokespersons will offer briefings “on background” and reporters (and editors) will accept those terms in hopes of maintaining access and staying even with competitors.

How many stories include the common phrase, “officials said”? Too many. It’s a lazy habit — for both reporters and spokespeople.

If a “high administration source” told you (and you alone) a major regulatory action was going to be unveiled two days hence, would you rush to publish the news before your competitors? Would you stop to ask yourself whether it was true, whether it could be verified, whether the announcement might be delayed or how your source might be taking advantage of you?

The sourcing issue becomes more critical when a story is controversial or reveals wrongdoing, when the story hinges on a single fact or set of facts and when those facts depend on a single source. Responsible editors are likely to pause and ask for more reporting on such stories.

Finding your source

The sourcing in the story itself is one thing. The use of leaks and leakers to find the story in the first place is quite another.

Attracting tips from iffy whistleblowers is often easier than you would imagine. Attracting newsworthy and verifiable tips from whistleblowers tends to be harder. Knowing the difference is harder still.

If you have worked in a news organization for any length of time, you probably are used to getting unsolicited offerings from press officers, public relations pros, activists and true-believers of all stripes, self-promoters, malcontents with an ax to grind, conspiracy theorists and just plain kooks. You may also be in the habit of tossing or deleting most of these communications because they don’t qualify as news.


You will be less vulnerable if you

accurately understand the source’s motive. 


And you may even feel duty-bound to sift quickly through the slush pile just in case it contains a genuine gem. Because once in a blue moon it does. But this is rarely the way to get real news.

These “over-the-transom” offerings are usually problematic. You may be a great reporter, but most often they come because the source has an extremely strong motive to share the information with you and see it made public.

You, as a journalist, will be less vulnerable if you accurately understand the source’s motive. It may be truth, justice and the public good. It may be hatred of corruption and tyranny. But it may also be spite, backstabbing, jealousy, self-aggrandizement, preferential treatment, profit, revenge, paranoid schizophrenia or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

So one of your first jobs upon receiving an anonymous tip is either 1) learning the identity of whoever wishes not to be identified, or 2) verifying the tip independently in several ways.

How do you cultivate sources? Research the people who work in the subject area you are interested in. Meet them by going to professional or public meetings. Call them with dumb, boring technical questions and don’t quote them. Make friends outside of work context (e.g., neighborhood barbecues, PTA meetings). Subscribe to listservs.

One less commonly used approach is to simply start writing about your subject and emphasizing in your story what things are not known. This could prompt a source to contact you.

Don’t assume that the good sources are alway going to be disgruntled agency employees. Talk to lobbyists and lobby groups, other journalists, lawyers litigating your issue, even public affairs operatives.

Sometimes the best sources are congressional investigators or their staff. Sometimes state agency staff who work with federal agencies have insights and a willingness to share. Talk to scientists outside the agency about scientists inside the agency. Check out the members of advisory boards and scientific advisory committees. Find out who the academic experts on the field are. Look at the regulatory dockets and call up the people who submit comments.

Basic reporting means calling people up, often cold. Sometimes it means agreeing initially to their requests to talk on background, or even drawing them out by offering background terms. But if you do get something good, you will probably want to go back over it and renegotiate the terms of sourcing and disclosure.

The trusted source

You may have better luck with someone who knows and trusts you — and someone whom you know and trust. Part of your job as a journalist is to cultivate sources and relationships. Sometimes, if you are good, you will have earned trust by your record of work, and may be approached by a source because of your reputation rather than personal acquaintance.

If you are lucky enough to form friendships with people at an agency you cover, keep them up. If you do it for friendship, and not for work, the friendships may last for many years. Most of your talk will have nothing to do with work. You may earn trust and friendship because you are not always asking snoopy questions. Your friend may be anxious about talking out of class. All the more reason to stay aware, because your friend may slip you some tidbit indirectly, as a hint, without making a big deal of it.

Sometimes you may strike up a relationship with a source on a purely professional level over some routine news item and then go back to them repeatedly. Trust develops this way, too, especially if you are considerate and honest toward your source. Occasionally, after months or even years of courtship, such contacts may give you a worthwhile scoop.

Terms of engagement

Trust is the lifeblood of an effective journalist-source relationship. Remember: Trust is a two-way street.

If your source’s identity is known to you and the source requests anonymity, the negotiations over the terms of that agreement are critical. One thing that is sure: it is wise to articulate the terms of the agreement as early and clearly as is feasible.


If you grant a source anonymity,

you have to keep your promise.

This is one of the most solemn

obligations of a journalist.


It will be a verbal agreement. The source may want to hear you say: “I will always protect you, even if it means going to jail.” And you may be fine with that. But your audience and editors may want to know what kind of anonymous person this is, so they can judge credibility. So you may need to agree on semi-identifying language like “a high agency official familiar with the investigation.”  

Don’t assume that you and your source have the same understanding of terms like “off the record” or “on background.” Spell out what those things mean. Editors often require the exact identity of a source, even when they agree to confidentiality.

And you may want to impose conditions yourself. An example might be truth-telling. Wise or not, you might want to say “If you lie to me, our deal is off.” You may think you can ask for exclusivity as a condition (the source agrees not to go to other outlets) — but you might be foolish to expect your source to live up to it. Such a promise might have a time limit.

Confidential sources often require tender loving care. It is often important to stay in contact with them and update them on what you are up to. Remember that the source may be impatient to get the story out. Without assurances that your lengthy investigation is making progress, the source may leak to one of your competitors.

Whistleblowing is usually perilous and your source may be frightened. You may need to reassure them. You may want to help the person find legal advice and support.

If you grant a source anonymity, you have to keep your promise. This is one of the most solemn obligations of a journalist. If the story is important enough, prosecutors may try to compel you to identify your source. You might have to go to jail to protect your source. Are you that trustworthy?

If you offer a source anonymity, remember that you have also protected them in important ways from accountability. A source with bad motives can go off the record and tell you a malicious lie with impunity. If you believe it or publish it, this hurts you and your audience.  So sourcing anything anonymously only redoubles your obligation to check and verify what you are being told.

Remember, you have to have a good reason for granting a source anonymity, and it is unwise to offer anonymity too easily.

Sometimes the key to using whistleblowers is to have them tell you off the record about things you may be able to get on the record via other channels. They can, for example, show you the exact document that you need to request under the Freedom of Information Act or give you enough identifying information that you can FOIA it successfully. Their generic information can be used as a question at a press conference (remember those?) or to the public affairs office in a way that generates an on-the-record statement.

Also see our Leaker’s Guide, Parts One and Two.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 19. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here.  And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.


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