How to Deal With Leaks and Whistle-Blowers

This is part of a series on how to Be a Better Journo. It’s intended to shame my colleagues in the blogosphere, solicit ideas from my peers on how we can all improve, and help guide noobs and youngsters into creating better digital journalism. [tweetmeme source=”jolieodell” only_single=false]

Every now and then, you’ll get a leak, a tip from a would-be whistle-blower who wants to break every NDA known to God and man to talk to you about internal company goings-on, to show you documents, to give you evidence.

This is the journalist’s Holy Grail, right? All the best journalistic stories start with a juicy leak. Watergate had its “Deep Throat,” just as the iPhone 4 started with Gray Powell. And now, some succulent cog has indicated that you could be propelled to Cronkite-esque heights by being spoon-fed some very indsidery details.

While you might already be fantasizing about all the chicks you’ll bag with a Pulitzer medal as your belt buckle, let’s take a moment to discuss the ethics and implications of the situation. I have compiled five guidelines to help you navigate through the complex moral cartwheels that dealing with a leak entails.

Have a read, and let me know if you can think of other considerations for journalists in this situation.

1) Is your source credible?
It goes without saying that the person leaking this information to you should be above reproach by Biblical definitions. Your whistle-blower should be able to back up anything he or she tells you with a reasonable amount and form of evidence; he or she should not have a personal reputation for lying, attention-whoring, manipulation, etc. Do a thorough background check and due diligence on your source before putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard.

2) Does your source have an ulterior motive, i.e., are you being used for revenge?
The disgruntled employee isn’t per se a bad source of information, but caveat journo: His testimony is tainted with newfound resentment. Facts may be distorted, and he — and you — may regret the divulging of certain information later. Clearly, a whistle-blower isn’t going to be the happiest camper, but try to make sure that your source’s intentions are for the greater good and not personally vindictive. Watch out for singled-out finger-pointing in the interview stage.

3) Will you yourself be in any hot water for divulging this information?
Of course, the Truth is the only thing that matters, but if talking about this information is going to land you in jail for dishing proprietary dirt or for refusing to name your sources — which you have the moral imperative and legal precedent to do — you and your publication need to seriously consider the implications on the collective’s reputation and your own career.

4) Is your source asking for any compensation for this leak?
Nothing compromises the integrity of a human being’s actions quite like money changing hands. In some cases, paying for your material can even be illegal; and in any case, it colors your source as a self-interested sleazeball rather than a concerned citizen whistle-blower. Never doubt this: A real journalist does not pay any source at any time for any kind of information. Leave that to the tabloids and gossip blogs.

5) Does this story benefit the Third Estate?
Last and most important is the tenet central to everything a journalist does: Will printing this leaked information benefit the public? Flashing a company’s internal documents all over the Internet will certainly grab you a boat-load of attention and readership, but will it do any real good for the people who rely on that company’s product? In many cases, a leak can provide valuable facts that allows users/consumers/folks to make informed decisions about the brands and behaviors they support. Just as often, however, you will come across information that, when printed, becomes sensationalistic muck-raking for muck-raking’s sake… and for pageviews, of course. Do not be a self-serving famewhore; resist the temptation to report on leaked information that benefits no one but you.

If you want to be a better journo, only print leaked info from credible sources, and only when the information’s disclosure is in the best interest of the public.

If you can manage to keep your objectivity, credibility and personal integrity intact, and if telling this story directly benefits the underprivileged or corrects an imbalance in some way, then go for it, Diane Sawyer. You’ve got your own personal Watergate. Start working the word “Pulitzer” into your pickup lines, and happy newswriting.

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