Leaking to the media

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There are two basic ways of blowing the whistle on wrongdoing through official channels, and by leaking to the media. Employees who see serious misconduct that threatens the public interest need to understand the differences so that they can choose between these two different courses of action.

Employers also need to understand the differences, so that they can develop more intelligent policies towards whistleblowers rather than engaging in destructive 'knee-jerk' reactions when employees raise concerns about possible misconduct.

Distinctions

Disclaimer
FAIR holds the view that whistleblowing should be made safe and effective so that anonymous leaking to the media becomes unnecessary.
We have no particular expertise or advocacy position regarding anonymous leaking: we don't counsel people to do so (or not to) and we are not involved in the process if they do. 
The following information is taken from publicly-available sources for the benefit of would-be whistleblowers who are considering all of their options.

Whistleblowers are people who disclose misconduct that threatens or injures the public good.  Almost always, they commence with 'official channels' , usually disclosing their identity as required (with assurances of confidentiality if they so wish) and giving the organization every chance to correct the situation. According to research, only 1-2% of whistleblowers ever approach the media, even as a last resort.

However there are situations where going through official channels is clearly a doomed strategy, and that's when the whistleblower may decide to leak instead. Leaking is the disclosure of suspected misconduct directly to the media, usually taking every possible precaution to hide one's identity.

In most cases whistleblowers who leak are never identified by the authorities (in spite of determined efforts to do so), so their identity, credibility and motives are never subject to examination. By hiding their identity they are more likely to escape reprisals.  In contrast, whistleblowers who use official channels are likely to be identified by management and are often subjected to vicious, career-ending reprisals, including attempts to silence and discredit them.

When cases involving whistleblowers are publicized, the repercussions are even more devastating as the whistleblower's motives, character, trustworthiness and mental health are publicly attacked. Many never find gainful employment again within their chosen profession.

The ethical dilemma

Blowing the whistle through official channels about honestly-held suspicions of wrongdoing is clearly always an honourable course of action which demonstrates personal integrity, a commitment to protect the public interest, and faith in management's integrity and desire to do the right thing.  If such whistleblowers are guilty of anything, it may be their underestimation of the personal risks associated with their acts of courage, or an over-optimistic belief that management will welcome their disclosures and take swift corrective action. 

In contrast, detractors claim that leaking is not honourable and is even cowardly.  Leaking often involves breaking certain laws or agreements, and it does not give the  organization the opportunity to fix the problems before they become public.  On account of anonymity, it also involves much less risk to the whistleblower if they can successfully hide their identity.  But far from being cowardly or dishonest, leaking is what courageous and honourable people do when they feel they have no choice: when there is no other way to protect the public interest.

When would-be whistleblowers see that others have suffered career-ending reprisals for speaking out, when they believe that management is covering up misconduct rather correcting it, when they see that official assurances of protection and proper investigations are worthless – then they find themselves in an impossible position.

They have three choices: 1) keeping quiet, perhaps violating their personal and professional ethics and allowing others to be harmed; 2) raising the alarm through 'official channels', probably to no effect, thus losing their livelihood and harming their own families; or 3) raising the alarm by leaking in a manner that might be effective while shielding themselves from reprisals. Understandably, for some, leaking is the obvious choice when considered against the risks and costs of blowing the whistle through official channels.

Organizational mis-steps

Ironically, by demonizing and attacking whistleblowers rather than protecting them and investigating their concerns, organizations may drive their most principled and committed employees to leak instead of giving the organization a chance to respond – or worse, to suppress their conscience and remain silent.

Employers need to understand that protecting whistleblowers increases the likelihood of nipping wrongdoing in the bud before it gets out of hand, leading to adverse publicity and potential threats to the survival of the organization. And they need to rethink their expectations of loyalty.  Employers need to understand that employees' true loyalty is to the organization and its mandate, and not necessarily to current bosses, who may be serving their own personal interests at the expense of the organization and the public interest.

How to leak safely and effectively

When someone decides that the only feasible way to protect the public interest is to leak, they need to do this in a way that maximizes the chances of success (getting the misconduct addressed) and minimizes the risk to themself and loved ones.

There's a lot more to this than just stuffing some documents in a brown envelope addressed to a journalist; technological and organizational innovations have created many more ways to disclose information anonymously.

Dozens of Wikileaks-like organizations have sprung up all over the world, dealing with specific regions or issues. Mainstream media organizations are also setting up secure systems to enable sources to send them information securely and anonymously. Protesters in harsh dictatorships have pioneered use of the internet, social media and citizen-created video to keep the world informed, bypassing official censorship and state firewalls.

Resources

Leakdirectory.org is a directory of leak sites and information about leaking.

 Advice to leakers from Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks (video): part 1 and part 2.

Note that Assange's suggested approach is very different from that suggested to whistleblowers who intend to use official channels.

For example, Assange advises acting alone and telling no-one, not even family or close friends, citing the example of legendary whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who was outed by his mother-in-law. (Ellsberg leaked the so-called Pentagon Papers, causing a public outcry that hastened the end of the war in Vietnam.) In contrast, whistleblowers are usually advised to discuss their decision with others, build a support network and seek out allies.

Assange also outlines various other precautions to conceal one's identity, including using secure methods of communication that cannot easily be penetrated by the authorities. But such precautions are useless if the whistleblower has already 'outed' himself e.g. by using insecure methods or by openly asking questions related to the suspected misconduct.

Since the two approaches – leaking and going through official channels – are so different in execution, it is essential to decide at a very early stage which approach to adopt.