TSN, Tow Center co-host journalism panel on tech whistleblowers who are women, people of color

On Feb. 15, The Signals Network and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism co-hosted a panel at Columbia University in New York City on what journalists should know when working with whistleblowers, especially when they are women and people of color.

The Markup CEO Nabiha Syed moderated the discussion with Theranos whistleblower Erika Cheung, Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang and Twitter whistleblower Anika Collier Navaroli. All three spoke about their experiences working with journalists, developing trust with those journalists and what they wish they had known before blowing the whistle.

The panelists also talked about how their identities and principles led them to become whistleblowers.

Navaroli, who receives support from TSN, was the most senior expert on Twitter’s U.S. safety policy team at the time of the attack on the U.S. Capitol in January 2021, and in 2022 provided information to Congress about Twitter’s role in the attack. During the panel, she recalled how, when she first blew the whistle anonymously, the Associated Press reported that she was a man. It was this mischaracterization that led to her decision to go public.

“I’m a Black queer woman who worked in tech and did this work,” Navaroli said. “And not only do I exist, but we’ve always been here.”

During the panel, Navaroli stressed that whistleblowers are in a vulnerable position. Disclosing their address, for example, can put them at risk. Journalists should be better trained to recognize these unique vulnerabilities and they should take additional protective measures where possible, such as alerting whistleblowers about what will go in a story in ways that don’t jeopardize an ethical reporting process.

“I was trained by old school newspaper men,” Navaroli said. “I’ve seen the faults in that training while I’ve gone through this process.”

Zhang, a whistleblower and former data scientist at Facebook, in 2020 shared documents with the press and later testified at different parliaments regarding Facebook’s reported role in enabling worldwide political manipulation.

During the panel, she recalled how she blew the whistle not only because she wanted to fix the problems she saw at the social media company, but also because of experiences she had when she was young.

“Like many people, I’ve been let down by authority figures in the past,” she said. “I decided when I was very young, that if I were ever in a position of responsibility, I would do my best to try and avoid failing others the same way that I was failed.”

Still, she recalled, she was “young and naive” when blowing the whistle and working with journalists, partly because she wasn’t working with a whistleblower support organization, such as The Signals Network.

“There is a natural inclination to put a lot of trust in the person that you’re suddenly telling all of this to,” she said.

Cheung was one of the key whistleblowers in the 2015 Theranos scandal. She blew the whistle to The Wall Street Journal and regulators to stop the blood-sampling company from processing patient samples with faulty technology.

On Thursday, Cheung mentioned that the journalist she worked with, Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou, helped onboard her to the interview process by teaching her journalist-source terminology such as “on background” or “off the record.”

She said she now works with The Signals Network after her whistleblowing journey because she understands first-hand the delicate relationship between a journalist and their source, as well as how much support a whistleblower needs beyond what the journalists themselves can provide.

“My commitment is to the truth. The journalist also has a commitment to the truth,” Cheung said. “But this is likely going to destroy my career, and this is likely going to make their career. So that leaves a bit of a misalignment.”

About TSN

TSN is a 501(c)3 organization dedicated to supporting whistleblowers who risk their livelihoods to share public interest information with the press. Founded in 2017 by journalists, whistleblowers and lawyers, TSN operates internationally to hold powerful interests accountable. TSN provides customized support to a selected group of whistleblowers who have contributed to published reports of significant wrongdoing. This support may include legal, psychological, physical safety, temporary safe-housing, online safety, career support and communication support.

For journalist inquiries, email sarah@thesignalsnetwork.org.