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How the media can support whistleblowers

Posted: Nov. 12, 2015 | Tags: whistleblowers

Can whistleblowers safely express concerns about their agency within internal channels? Do a whistleblower’s motives matter? Should the press focus on the leaker when reporting stories about the information they revealed?

Edward Snowden — famous for his NSA data leaks — New York Times reporter James Risen and whistleblowers Thomas Drake and Jesselyn Radack tried to answer these questions using their own experiences at a Newseum forum Tuesday. 

“For all the whistleblowers I’ve worked with, for them, the press is the last resort,” Risen said. “They’ve tried and almost never found any real result from that internal system.”

PEN America, a human-rights organization advocating for free speech, sponsored the event and released a report examining the channels whistleblowers have available, which showed why many concerned officials turn to the media to get their information out safely. 

Drake and Radack said they tried to work within the system to bring up their concerns with agency activities, but they suffered retaliation or superiors destroyed or redacted evidence they raised. 

Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the NSA, revealed multi-billion dollar fraud, failures with 9/11 intelligence and mass surveillance violations. The Obama Administration indicted Drake in 2010 and charged him with espionage. He went free in a plea deal in 2011.

Jesselyn Radack formerly worked as an ethics adviser to the Department of Justice. She disclosed an ethic violation in the FBI during their interrogation of John Walker Lindh without an attorney. Lindh is a U.S. citizen who was captured in Afghanistan and is now in prison. 

The media became their last option. Below are some ways journalists support whistleblowers and encourage them to disclose crucial information, according to panelists.

Shift the focus

Journalists need to shift the way they report whistleblowing stories, Risen said. Currently, the media treats them like police procedural stories, listing all the parties involved, instead of asking, as Risen did, "Is this the right thing for the government to be doing?"  

Recognize the risks whistleblowers face

“The real problem is that whistleblowers face more dangers than reporters do,” Risen said. “We need to start thinking how we can help protect sources, change the dialogue. The government can make our lives difficult and our job hard, but it’s far worse for sources.”

Simply encrypting communication is not source protection, said Radack, who represents Snowden as his attorney. “That is a dangerous myth,” she said. 

Motives don’t matter

A whistleblower’s motives don’t matter, Snowden said via Skype from Russia, and focusing on them may distract the public from the important information they illuminated. 

“Ultimately, whether this person did it for right or wrong, if they’ve revealed wrongdoing," Snowden said, "that’s really all that matters.” 

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