Department of Political Science

Whistleblowing and the press: Complicating the standard account

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Whistleblowers and journalists are key democratic actors who are both concerned with the exposure of wrongdoing in corporations, organizations, and governments. For that reason, they often collaborate to bring incriminating information to public knowledge. In the standard account, the whistleblower initiates the contact to journalists who eventually publish the story. Based on a sample of 16 whistleblower cases, the paper shows that the reality of this relationship is more complex than the standard account suggests. The empirical material documents four different trajectories through which whistleblower information reaches the public sphere, only one of which conforms to the standard account. The paper explains the variation based on a theoretical framework, which highlights the main similarities and differences between whistleblowers and journalists. Seen from the perspective of whistleblowers the relationship is double-sided. On the one hand, engaging with the press entails considerable asymmetry and uncertainty for whistleblowers who do not always know the exact motives of journalists just as they enter the relationship from a much more precarious and unstable position. Whistleblowers are also wary of collaborating with the press because it entails a radical loss of privacy as the story breaks in the public sphere. On the other hand, interacting with the press can offer vital legitimacy, protection, and professional resources for vulnerable whistleblowers. Existing work on this core relationship in democracy is surprisingly small and undertheorized. The paper contributes to the debate by offering a theoretically and empirically grounded typology of the whistleblower-journalism nexus.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages18
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2022

    Research areas

  • Cambridge analytica, Whistleblowing, autobigraphies, disclosure, journalism, manning, panama papers, snowden

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