In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Whistleblowing

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • International Studies
  • Organizations
  • Notable Whistleblowers

Communication Whistleblowing
Andrea Hickerson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0173


Whistleblowing, also written as “whistle blowing” and “whistle-blowing,” is when an individual or small group of individuals provides evidence of significant wrongdoing going on within an agency or organization they are either part of or have knowledge of, and then complains internally or externally, usually at great personal cost. “Leaking” is a strategy used by some whistleblowers, whereby individuals release private information, usually to journalists or advocacy groups. Speaking out publicly and offering personal testimony or witness is another possible method for whistleblowers. Early studies on whistleblowing come from publications on business management and ethics, but there has been an uptick in whistleblowing research in communication post-WikiLeaks disclosure of documents provided by former US army soldier Chelsea Manning in 2010. Researchers disagree on whether or not individuals must and should take their information public to qualify as a whistleblower. Certainly, however, it is in journalists’ best interests for whistleblowers to do so because it helps reinforce their role as the fourth estate. Much research has explored the motivations of whistleblowers and offers advice to journalists wishing to cultivate and protect such relationships. Notably research from outside liberal democracies suggests whistleblowing may be culturally bounded and that it retains a negative connotation in developing countries.

General Overviews

Most comprehensive overviews of whistleblowing come from business and law. Much of the business literature advocates developing internal whistleblowing procedures that catch would-be public whistleblowers before their complaints go public. Lipman 2012, for example, suggests companies should treat whistleblowers as friends and not foes. Jubb 1999 and Near and Miceli 1985 are two oft-cited explications of the whistleblowing process. Elliston, et al. 1985 is a theoretical and methodological primer on whistleblowing. Brown, et al. 2014 offers a comprehensive and contemporary overview of whistleblowing research. Research on the relationship between whistleblowing and democracy, such as that by Lewis and Vandekerckhove 2011 and Johnson 2003, and noted by Westin 1981, is of special interest to journalism scholars where working with whistleblowers lends the perception of journalists as government watchdogs. Martin 2014 is notable because it clearly articulates the relationship between leaking and whistleblowing as well as other insights from the perspective of whistleblowers.

  • Brown, A. J., David Lewis, Richard Moberly, and Wim Vandekerckhove, eds. 2014. International handbook on whistleblowing research. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

    Contemporary overview of whistleblowing with emphasis on cultural norms, the effects of organizational culture, and responsiveness and legal research and protections.

  • Elliston, Frederick, John Keenan, Paula Lockhart, and Jane van Schaick. 1985. Whistleblowing research: Methodological and moral issues. New York: Praeger.

    Comprehensive analysis of the whistleblowing process, including strategies for whistleblowers to receive attention. Advocates an action-oriented definition of whistleblowing where disclosures become a matter of public record (not handled internal to organizations). Review of relevant individual-level and organizational communication theories. Explication of the case study method with examples.

  • Johnson, Roberta Ann. 2003. Whistleblowing: When it works––and why. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

    Defines whistleblowers as reporting external to the organization. Argues whistleblowers are more common in the United States than elsewhere. Notable for reviewing policy impacts brought about by whistleblowers, as well as an in-depth discussion of the benefits of being a whistleblower.

  • Jubb, Peter B. 1999. Whistleblowing: A restrictive definition and interpretation. Journal of Business Ethics 21.1 (August): 77–94.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1005922701763

    Summarizes contrasting definitions of whistleblowing, summarized handily in a table. Notes most disagreement concerns attention to the whistleblower’s motivation and whether or not the disclosure of complaints can be internal and external, or just external. Jubb falls in the external-only camp.

  • Lewis, David, and Wim Vandekerckhove, ed. 2011. Whistleblowing and democratic values. London: International Whistleblowing Research Network.

    Edited volume came out of a 2009 conference on whistleblowing. Chapters address the tension between private and public spheres (“how do we make whistleblowing work for democracy?” versus “what happens to people who raise concerns?”). Studies focus on whistleblowing in already democratic countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, Norway, and Austrialia.

  • Lipman, Frederick D. 2012. Whistleblowers: Incentives, disincentives, and protection strategies. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley

    Written by a lawyer, provides a clear overview of whistleblowing following the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in 2010. Provides an overview of government and corporate policies. Includes case studies. Argues women are more likely to become external whistleblowers due to concerns over internal retaliation.

  • Martin, Brian. 2014. Research that whistleblowers want––and what they need. In International handbook on whistleblowing research. Edited by A. J. Brown, David Lewis, Richard Moberly, and Wim Vandekerckhove, 497–521. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

    Based on over twenty years of research with whistleblowers. Offers advice on what would-be whistleblowers should know and do. Good explication of whistleblowing vis-à-vis leaking. Warns anonymous leaking is perceived to lack some authority.

  • Near, Janet P., and Marcia Miceli. February 1985. Organizational dissidence: The case of whistle-blowing. Journal of Business Ethics 4.1: 1–16.

    DOI: 10.1007/BF00382668

    Written prior to major whistleblowing legislation in the United States, explicates a model for the whistleblowing process. Defines four elements: the whistlerblower, the act or complaint, the party to whom the complaint is lodged and the organization which the complaint is filed against. Suggests a mixed method approach for future research.

  • Westin, Alan F., ed. 1981. Whistle-blowing! Loyalty and dissent in the corporation. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    Introduction provides an overview of early arguments for establishing whistleblower protection in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Credits Watergate with generating interest, but also the development of corporate law and public attitudes about corporations. Chapters are first person accounts of whistleblowers in various industries including construction and transportation.

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