TSN, whistleblowers talk best journalist-source practices at ONA conference
Last week, The Signals Network joined two whistleblowers at the Online News Association conference in Philadelphia to speak about best practices for journalists working with whistleblower sources.
The panel featured TSN’s Director of Operations Rebecca Petras; Duc Luu, TSN board member and director of sustainability initiatives of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Journalism Program; #MeToo whistleblower Ali Diercks; and health care industry whistleblower Wendell Potter.
A full recording of the panel, titled “Do’s and Don’t’s of Working With Whistleblowers in the Digital Age,” can be found here.
In a May 2023 episode of The Daily, Diercks was revealed as the anonymous whistleblower behind The New York Times reporting in 2018 on allegations of impropriety against CBS and its top executive, Les Moonves. As a result of those revelations, Moonves did not receive a $120 million parachute upon leaving CBS.
As Diercks recalled during the panel, she was a document review lawyer at the law firm conducting an internal review of CBS when she shared information with the New York Times reporter.
Diercks revelations brought about accountability for Moonves’ victims, but Diercks lost her law license in the process. In the intervening time, while Diercks was still anonymous, the reporter won a Pulitzer and wrote a book that was in part informed by the allegations.
“I still deal with a lot of shame and a lot of guilt,” she said. “Wrestling with that alone and in secret while watching [the reporter] star-ascend, basically, was really, really hard.”
Diercks added that the reporter and the team at the New York Times were clear about the ground rules of working with journalists and never pressured her outside her comfort zone as a source.
Diercks advised prospective whistleblowers to get outside support from organizations like The Signals Network early on. “If I’d had external support early on, it would have made a huge difference,” she said.
From left to right: Whistleblower Wendell Potter, whistleblower Ali Diercks, TSN’s Rebecca Petras and Knight Foundation’s Duc Luu speak at the ONA23 Conference in Philadelphia on Aug. 25.
Health care industry whistleblower Potter, a former journalist, advised journalists to make sure not to encourage a source to do something that puts them in legal jeopardy. Journalists move on to the next story after working with a source, and don’t often understand what the source goes through after publication, he said.
The journalism profession needs to help find ways to provide support to whistleblowers, the type of support that Potter did not have access to when he blew the whistle, he said.
“Whistleblowers really can help journalism and help you tell stories you otherwise would not be able to tell,” Potter said. “People are putting their lives, their careers at jeopardy. And often, it doesn’t have a happy ending.”
He advised journalists, when talking to whistleblowers, to have an understanding of what they’re going through and to be equipped to point them to resources.
Potter is a former insurance industry executive who testified to Congress about the insurance industry’s role in rising health care costs, as well as its role on the increasing population of under-insured and uninsured U.S. citizens. His testimony incited major policy reforms that were included in the Affordable Care Act. In 2008, he left his job as Head of Communications at Cigna to advocate for health care reform.
The number of journalists and whistleblowers coming to TSN for support has increased dramatically over the years, Petras said.
“Whistleblowers sometimes mistake the relationship with journalists as a friendship. It is not that you [journalists] need to be their friend, but you can help them find the help that they need,” she said. “The journalist has a job to do. Whistleblowers know that, they fully understand that, but they don’t know where else to turn to. So by involving someone who can give them some support, it allows for the journalist to focus on telling that story.”
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.