• Byrhonda Lyons, investigative reporter, CalMatters
  • Sam Hornblower, producer, “60 Minutes”/CBS News
  • Kathleen McGrory, reporter, ProPublica
  • Deborah Schoch, independent journalist (moderator)

By Barbara Feder Ostrov 

Investigative reporters shared tools for both identifying and protecting potential whistleblowers in this panel.

Byrhonda Lyons, investigative reporter for CalMatters, highlighted some of the reporting tools she used to report her story on constant transfers of mentally ill inmates in California prisons. She has found sources through employee rosters, lawsuits, obituaries, Google advanced searches for PDF files, Facebook groups and police call logs. She has even sent snail mail to sources’ homes.

She avoids gatekeepers, including public information officers. “They don’t come to me with the real goods,” she said. “I have to get really creative.”

To protect sources, she recommends never publishing non-public documents “as-is” because the metadata they may contain could identify a source. She also advised:

  • Leave your cell phone at home to avoid being tracked 
  • Consider using encrypted messages
  • Keep your reporting out of the cloud by recording audio on old-school tape recorders and avoid online AI transcription services for sensitive interviews. (“Analog, baby,” Lyons advised.)

Kathleen McGrory of ProPublica shared lessons she learned while reporting on alarming death rates in the heart surgery unit of a children’s hospital in Tampa. She used hospital discharge data to quantify the death rates and put them in context. Because doctors were reluctant to discuss their colleagues on the record, she asked them to point her to documents that could inform her reporting while minimizing the doctors’ exposure. She also took care to vet the information she received, such as asking to look at text messages or written notes to confirm past events or conversations.

She found publicly available testimony relevant to her story in unlikely places. For example, a doctor who would not comment on the record had given relevant information in a public meeting on whether a competing facility should be built.

“We looked in all the obvious places but found jewels elsewhere,” McGrory said.

Sam Hornblower, associate producer for CBS’ "60 Minutes," shared tips from reporting on how a hospital’s quest for profit led to fraud and substandard patient care. While the hospital’s PR department allowed the team to film inside the hospital, he balanced that access with more critical perspectives from hospital physicians and former executives, protecting their identities from hospital administrators until the segment aired.

Barbara Feder Ostrov is editorial director/business of medicine, for Medscape/WebMD. She is based in California.

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