Back in 2007, Dan Froomkin posted this informal and very helpful list of rules for journalists who want to practice their craft professionally and honorably.
Here are some parts of it:
You Can’t Be Too Skeptical of Authority
- Don’t assume anything administration officials tell you is true. In fact, you are probably better off assuming anything they tell you is a lie.
- Demand proof for their every assertion. Assume the proof is a lie. Demand that they prove that their proof is accurate.
- Just because they say it, doesn’t mean it should make the headlines. The absence of supporting evidence for their assertion -- or a preponderance of evidence that contradicts the assertion -- may be more newsworthy than the assertion itself.
- Don’t print anonymous assertions. Demand that sources make themselves accountable for what they insist is true....Be Particularly Skeptical of Secrecy
- Don’t assume that these officials, with their access to secret intelligence, know more than you do.
- Alternately, assume that they do indeed know more than you do – and are trying to keep intelligence that would undermine their arguments secret.Watch for Rhetorical Traps
- Keep an eye on how advocates of war frame the arguments. Don’t buy into those frames unless you think they’re fair.
- Keep a particular eye out for the no-lose construction. For example: If we can’t find evidence of WMD, that proves Saddam is hiding them.
- Watch out for false denials. In the case of Iran, when administration officials say “nobody is talking about invading Iran,” point out that the much more likely scenario is bombing Iran, and that their answer is therefore a dodge.Don’t Just Give Voice to the Administration Officials
- Give voice to the skeptics; don’t marginalize and mock them.
- Listen to and quote the people who got it right last time: The intelligence officials, state department officials, war-college instructors and many others who predicted the problem we are now facing, but who were largely ignored.
- Offer the greatest and most guaranteed degree of confidentiality to whisteblowers offering information that contradicts the official government position. (By contrast, don’t offer any confidentiality to administration spinners.)Look Outside Our Borders
- Pay attention to international opinion.
- Raise the question: What do people in other countries think? Why should we be so different?
- Keep an eye out for how the international press is covering this story. Why should we be so different....Encourage Public Debate
- The nation is not well served when issues of war and peace are not fully debated in public. It’s reasonable for the press to demand that Congress engage in a full, substantial debate.
- Cover the debate exhaustively and substantively.Write about Motives
- Historically, the real motives for wars have often not been the public motives. Try to report on the motivations of the key advocates for war.
- Don’t assume that the administration is being forthright about its motives.
- If no one in the inner circle will openly discuss their motives, then encourage reasonable speculation about their motives....
It's a pretty good list to which I would only add a few, small tweaks and definitions.
First, a leaker is not necessarily a whistleblower, and neither of them is a journalist.
Wikipedia tells me that a "whistleblower":
... is a person who tells the public or someone in authority about alleged dishonest or illegal activities (misconduct) occurring in a government department or private company or organization. The alleged misconduct may be classified in many ways; for example, a violation of a law, rule, regulation and/or a direct threat to public interest, such as fraud, health/safety violations, and corruption. Whistleblowers may make their allegations internally (for example, to other people within the accused organization) or externally (to regulators, law enforcement agencies, to the media or to groups concerned with the issues).
On the other hand, "leaking" is a more generic term and does not necessarily involve disclosing misconduct.
"To disclose without authorization or official sanction."
All things being equal, getting even with your boss for denying you a promotion by telling a gossip columnist she is screwing around on her husband is certainly a "leak" but hardly qualifies as blowing the whistle on dishonesty or misconduct. Under this definition, Karl Rove was certainly a "leaker" for outing Valerie Plame (although to be fair, being a sociopath, he probably considered himself a do-gooding whistleblower as well.)
Second, starting with the fact that abridging the "free press" is specifically prohibited by the United States Constitution while "telling a reporter about all the weed they're smoking down at the post office" is not, going after a leaker or whistleblower is not in any way comparable to going after a journalist.
Depending on the context of your actions, boosting your colleague's diary or recording the drunken blurtings of some DOL middle manager without their knowledge or copying a million random Top Secret government documents while under military contract and passing it on to a reporter may make you a hero or a villain or just a dick...but it also might make you a criminal. The reporter who receives your purloined secrets has a pretty comprehensive first amendment right that should protect them under almost every circumstance: you, on the other hand, have very limited protections for handing over those secrets:
Under most US federal whistleblower statutes, in order to be considered a whistleblower, the federal employee must have reason to believe his or her employer has violated some law, rule or regulation; testify or commence a legal proceeding on the legally protected matter; or refuse to violate the law.In cases where whistleblowing on a specified topic is protected by statute, US courts have generally held that such whistleblowers are protected from retaliation. However, a closely divided US Supreme Court decision, Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006) held that the First Amendment free speech guarantees for government employees do not protect disclosures made within the scope of the employees' duties.
Third, I would revise Mr. Froomkin's editorial choice to wrap his rules around the relationships between journalists and "the administration"/"administration officials" and change it to "authority". The relationship between reporters and any "authority" can become corrupt and damaging to the republic whether that authority is the White House, Wall Street, the Koch Brothers, G.E., Rupert Murdoch or the Rand Paul Administration-in-waiting.
Finally I would ask what if any real-world consequences should be visited on people who call themselves journalists but flamboyantly flout Mr. Froomkin's rules?
Should Judith Miller have been able to claim journalistic protection for helping Dick Cheney lie us into a war?
Was Jeff Gannon a journalist? If not, why not?
Is James O'Keefe a journalist?
Is Sean Hannity? Is Rush Limbaugh?
If I decide to start tossing unsubstantiated slander around as fact because an anonymous source whispers it in my ear, do I get to be considered a journalist?
And would another blogger ethics panel finally clear all of this up?