The Whistleblower Project

A collaboration between the Society of Professional Journalists and the Government Accountability Project

Introduction A Call to Action Whistleblower Basics Voices Best Practices 25 moments that changed history

Reporting with Purpose

Megan Wood talks about why she looked into San Diego Christian College’s missing $20 million in expenses and how whistleblowers make a difference in their communities.

By Alex Veeneman

Contents

Introduction

A Call to Action: Whistleblower Protection Legislation
If passed, these laws would help improve protection for whistleblowers.


Whistleblower Basics
The Law and Whistleblowing
Deciphering the laws dealing with whistleblowing is complicated, but we hope this will help.

Whistleblowers and Retaliation
Those who expose wrongdoing can face job loss, lawsuits or even prison.

Leaking vs. Whistleblowing
Can you spot the difference between a leaker and a whistleblower? It may be trickier than you think.

Nine Organizations That Work With and Help Whistleblowers

Best Practices for Journalists
Source Protection and Anonymity for Whistleblowers
In political journalism, there’s a debate over allowing sources to talk to you off the record, in order to keep the access pipeline flowing. Anonymity and the ethics of it can also be complicated in situations beyond scoring political points.

Whistleblowers and Reporters: Trust
Here are some best practices to follow when working with a whistleblower on a story.

Technology Can Help Whistleblowers Communicate Anonymously
The ways that reporters and whistleblowers communicate is evolving. The introduction of secure communications has become necessary as journalists try to protect their sources, all the while trying to guarantee the information is secure.

Anonymity: Not Always the Possible, Nor Always the Best, Strategy
Many whistleblowers want to disclose information about trouble in their workplaces while maintaining their anonymity. However, the vast majority of whistleblowers — more than 95 percent — try to solve their problems internally first.

When Working with Whistleblowers, Same Ethical Journalism Principles Apply
Government Accountability Project’s “Working with Whistleblowers: A Guide for Journalists” details best practices for working with whistleblowers.


Voices
Kathryn Foxhall: Good whistleblowing simply needs free speech
During the last 25 years it’s become an accepted norm for government, business, nonprofits and other organizations to prohibit employees to ever communicate with journalists without notifying and being overseen by the authorities, often public information officers. The restrictions are intense, highly effective censorship. The Society of Professional Journalists has made opposing them a priority.

Jesselyn Radack: Challenges in Defending National Security Whistleblowers
War crimes, mass surveillance, torture: some of the biggest stories in modern history relied on whistleblowers in national security and intelligence agencies. They came forward at great risk to expose the truth.

Nick Schwellenbach: The Modern Politics of American Whistleblowing
Insiders Valued More Highly in U.S. Society, But Still Face Perils.


25 times whistleblowers changed history
Food and Drug Administration safety researcher Dr. David Graham’s research showed that the painkiller Vioxx had caused 88,000 to 139,000 heart attacks, with a 30-40 percent fatality rate. Graham went to Congress after the FDA attempted to suppress his findings. His disclosures not only resulted in Merck pulling Vioxx off the shelves, they also exposed FDA bias in favor of pharmaceutical industry interests over health science. Get the full details of David's story, along with 24 other times whistleblowers changed history.

Features
Mary Willingham: An Attempt To Make The College Athletic System Better For Athletes
Mary Willingham talks about why she spoke out about the treatment of college athletes at North Carolina and why — despite death threats from college sports enthusiasts — she would do it again.

Megan Wood: Reporting with Purpose
Megan Wood talks about why she looked into San Diego Christian College’s missing $20 million in expenses and how whistleblowers make a difference in their communities.

Richard Bowen: Blowing the Whistle on Defective Mortgages
While evaluating $90 billion of mortgages Citigroup was buying from Countrywide and other lenders, former Citigroup vice president Richard Bowen tried to warn company leaders and board members about the rise in defective mortgages. In 2010 he testified before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. Here, in Bowen’s words, is what happened next.

Craig Watts: Typical American Farmer Risks Career to Reveal Inhumane Conditions at Chicken Farms
Craig Watts was a typical American farmer with three kids, two dogs, and a barn full of chickens. That all changed though when he decided to show the public the conditions chickens, sold by Perdue farms, were being raised in.


Credits
Meet the Project Team

When Megan Wood, a reporter for inewsource and San Diego SPJ chapter board member, began looking into San Diego Christian College’s tax documents, which revealed $20 million was unaccounted for, a student asked why she was trying to “take the school down.”

That was not Wood’s goal.

“If people don't know where the money is going, it's a concern. It's our job to uncover that and to get to the bottom [of] it.”

“It's not about that,” Wood said in a phone interview. “It's [about] holding powerful people accountable. If people could understand that and why we're doing it for that purpose, that would be the ultimate goal.”

Wood began looking into the college’s missing funds after a former employee, an anonymous whistleblower, asked her to check the school’s 2012-2014 tax documents and expenses.

After reviewing the tax returns, Wood found $20 million was marked as “other” by an accounting firm overseeing the college’s finances. It was then that she knew there was a story: What happened to the missing $20 million? How much of it might have gone to tuition and financial aid?

“If people don't know where the money is going, it's a concern,” Wood said. “It's our job to uncover that and to get to the bottom [of] it.”

Investigative journalism is important because it’s beneficial for the public to know where their tax dollars are going, Wood said. Investigative journalism can also affect the community. After the initial story published, the Chief Financial Officer for the college resigned — but the college did not give a clear explanation as to why the change occurred.

“We take the news that's out there that touches the surface and we have the time to go in-depth and figure out what's going on,” Wood said. “Investigative journalism is hard to find in San Diego. It’s important that many people do it as much as possible.”

While Wood was reporting, she said there was a clear need for transparency. The stories were fact checked and some documents Wood discovered while reporting were made public when the story was published.

But it wasn’t enough.

San Diego Christian College’s outside counsel wrote a letter to the news agency and its partner station, CBS-KFMB, demanding a retraction. The college also emailed its students, their parents and alumni, asking them not to believe the report.

In a response letter to the college’s attorneys, lawyers for KFMB and inewsource said its policy is to “correct or clarify information that is proven to be inaccurate or misleading.” inewsource has said it stands by its reporting and has not unpublished the story.

Editor’s note: In addition to his work on the Freedom of Information Committee, Alex Veeneman is a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee.


Next: Blowing the Whistle on Defective Mortgages: A Q&A with Richard Bowen