Investigative reporters rely on whistleblowers to expose misconduct and lawbreaking.
But while this can crack their story wide open, prominent examples of whistleblower 'honour killings' and other forms of retaliation can discourage those with information from coming forward.
However, recent landmark legislation approved by the European Union has created stronger, EU-wide protection against punishments when reporting breaches of EU law, through the introduction of ‘safe channels'.
In addition, it offers a framework for when and how to speak to journalists.
Meirion Jones, investigations editor for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism who worked on a number of high-profile cases, such as the Jimmy Saville revelations or the 'fake sheikh' spoke about gold standards of working with whistleblowers.
One of the most important measures, Jones said, is protecting your source’s anonymity and safety. Should there be the slightest danger of these being compromised, it is preferable to not run the story at all, or publish a significantly cut-down version.
"Investigative journalists should cultivate a relationship of trust with whistleblowers and wait for as long as it takes for them to become confident to release the information," he said, highlighting the importance of patience.
As an example, Jones spoke about his story on the 2012 London Olympics, when an insider released communications that revealed an operation to fix matches and buy boxing gold medals.
In this particular case, it took almost a year for his source to agree to go on the record anonymously.
The subsequent investigation discovered a document which led to a second whistleblower, encouraging the first interviewee to be more forthcoming.
Jones also recommends exploring the motivation behind the leak, which can range from seeking justice, to personal gain, to revenge.
For example, if a company blows the whistle on a competitor, there is an obvious conflict of interests that journalists need to be mindful of.
To help your sources stay safe, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism published a guide for whistleblowers on leaking information.
Reporters also need to factor in the significant strain whistleblowing has on their sources’ mental health. A 2018 study by Tilburg University showed that nearly 50 per cent of those who spoke out suffered from clinical levels of anxiety and depression.
Free daily newsletter
- Weekly journalism news update: 'automated journalism', sustainable newsrooms and Newsrewired
- Bureau of Investigative Journalism fundraises to take the UK Government to court over Russian Report
- Dmitry Shishkin, chief content officer of Culture Trip, on converting subscribers, evergreen content and automated commissioning
- How can news organisations survive at a time of increasing reader needs and digital disruption?
- Tip: What journalists can do when experiencing online attacks