OPINION: USF must teach integrity in whistleblowing, media ethics

Recent and historical government document leaks shed light on the importance of whistleblowing and truth in the media. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

Jack Teixeira, a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, was arrested on Thursday for his connection to the recent leak of over 100 pages of highly classified government documents pertaining to the war in Ukraine, as reported by the Washington Post on April 13.

The 21-year-old is suspected to be the initial person to have transmitted the documents on the social media platform Discord. 

Whistleblowing is “the mechanism to get the right information to the right people to counter wrongdoing and promote proper, effective and efficient operation of intelligence functions,” according to the website of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.  

In a democracy, in order for peace and public support of the government, a level of honesty is necessary. As demonstrated by Teixeira and many other past whistleblowers, this honesty is most often regulated by forms of journalism or media. This responsibility must be taught in USF journalism and media classes so that students contribute to the media in ethical ways.

“Americans don’t trust the government. The most recent Gallup poll on Trust in Institutions shows that 54% of those surveyed in 2022 said that they trust Congress ‘very little’ and 45% said they trust the presidency ‘very little,’” USF professor and journalism expert Wendy Whitt said in a Monday interview with The Oracle on Monday.

Given these statistics, Americans must rely on journalism and media to properly and honestly report government actions and functions and hold the nation accountable. 

“Whistleblowers are often the only way we learn about things in the government,” Whitt said.

Many times, journalism must rely on leaked documents or inside information to ensure that the truth is being told.

“There is a long history of this kind of activity, take Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers for instance,” said award-winning journalist and USF Mass Communications instructor, Wayne Garcia in an interview with the Oracle on April 13.

“But in the end, these circumstances tend to support our need to know information in a democracy. Because ultimately, the citizens of this nation have to decide, not just the President or Congress.”

USF media courses should emphasize to students and future journalists the integrity and ethics involved in whistleblowing. These skills include the ability to understand the meaning, intent, and impact of media as well as the ethics required to create truthful and reasonable media.

As of February 2021, 85% of Americans own smartphones, according to a survey by Pew Research Center. These people can consume and post information at any given time, on any given platform, thus they have the ability to persuade or even misinform countless others.

“That is a really powerful power for one person to have, and you must have an understanding of integrity and ethics if you are going to be putting information out in the world,” said Garcia.

In the case of Teixeira’s leak, he personally had the power to threaten Americans’ trust in their government and the stability of U.S. foreign relations. Of course, the impact of his actions has yet to be determined, but this serves as an example of the true influence of information. USF students and future journalists must understand this concept in order to contribute to candid media.

“I always tell my students that as journalists – it is essential that we understand the code of ethics that guides our work, that we have a mechanism for ethical decision-making and that we are transparent about how we make those decisions,” said Whitt.

Journalism and media are obligated neither to the government nor the people’s will, but rather obligated to the truth and to democracy.

“A functioning press is essential to this democracy. That’s why it’s in the First Amendment,”  said Garcia.

Integrity is crucial to both whistleblowers and the public to effectively evaluate and understand the information provided through whistleblowing.