Lesson Plan: Do the Actions of Whistleblowers Help or Hurt Society?

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In this lesson, students will study the cases of two whistleblowers and judge whether the actions of whistleblowers help or hurt society. Students will then explain how they would have acted if they had been in the whistleblowers' situations.

The clips used in this lesson are from the film The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, a documentary about a Vietnam War strategist who leaked 7,000 pages of top secret government documents to The New York Times after he discovered that the role of the United States in the war was based on decades of lies. For more information on the Pentagon Papers and a timeline of events, see POV's Background page for this film and the Related Resources section of this lesson.

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By the end of this lesson, students will:

  • Define the term "whistleblower."
  • Describe the situations faced by two whistleblowers, including Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War.
  • Explain what they would have done if they had been in the situations of the two whistleblowers studied in the lesson.
  • Evaluate whether the actions of whistleblowers help or hurt society.


SUBJECT AREAS: World History, U.S. History, Civics, Journalism, Current Events


ESTIMATED TIME NEEDED: One to two 50-minute class periods

Clip 1: "Gulf of Tonkin Incident" (length 2:53)

The clip begins at 2:24 with an aerial shot of the Pentagon and ends at 5:17 when Ellsberg says, ". . . including me."

Clip 2: "What Ellsberg Learned From the Pentagon Papers" (length 1:46)

The clip begins at 30:41 with the narration "In August of 1969 . . ." and ends at 32:27, when Ellsberg says, ". . . with no end in sight."

Clip 3: "Willing to Risk Prosecution" (length 2:44)

The clip begins at 40:51 with the narration "Keeping silent in public . . ." It ends at 43:35, when Ellsberg says, ". . . and headed home."


  1. Tell the class that a "whistleblower" is someone who uncovers and publicly raises concerns about misconduct or wrongdoings from within an organization.
  2. Explain that you are going to show the class a series of brief video clips that tell the story of a whistleblower named Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked top secret government documents to the press during the Vietnam War in order to show how U.S. presidents had misled the American public about their intentions for the war.
  3. Distribute the Whistleblowers handout. Then, ask the students to note details about Ellsberg's story in the first three rows of the second column of the handout as they watch the clips. Explain that Daniel Ellsberg specialized in crisis decision-making and the command control of nuclear weapons. He worked for the RAND Corporation, which provided strategic information and analysis to key U.S. military decision-makers, such as Robert McNamara, who was then secretary of defense. Show the class the Vietnam War map and let students know that it depicts Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 1970s. Point out the location of the Gulf of Tonkin and show Clip 1.
  4. Next, explain that three years after the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara asked the RAND Corporation to put together a full history of U.S. decision-making on Vietnam from the early 1940s through March 1968. Thirty-six men, including Daniel Ellsberg, worked on the project. Then, show Clips 2 and 3.
  5. After watching Clip 3, review the content provided in the fourth and fifth rows of the second column of the handout. Do students think that Ellsberg did the right thing by leaking top secret government documents to the public? Why or why not?
  6. Have students form pairs. Ask each pair to refer to POV's Whistleblower Timeline and choose a "present-day" whistleblower to study (2000-present). Partners should then work together to complete the third column of the handout with information about this person. Pairs should refer to the timeline and research additional reference materials as needed. Ask students then to complete the handout's Analysis and Application questions individually.

Students can be assessed on:

  • Contributions to the work done with their partners.
  • The quality of information and analysis they provide on the handout.


  • If time permits, have pairs take turns giving class presentations about the whistleblowers they selected from the timeline. Ask the students to consider how the cases of their present-day whistleblowers differ from the case of Daniel Ellsberg. Students may also share what they would have done if they were in the present-day whistleblowers' situations.
  • Learn about whistleblower protection laws. Have students research and summarize laws such as the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. Sites such as WhistleblowerLaws.com and the National Whistleblowers Center provide details on whistleblower laws in each state.
  • Report on President Obama's record on government transparency. During his campaign, President Obama promised the most open, transparent, and accountable executive branch in history. Ask the class to examine his record by reviewing the data in the document "Secrecy Report Card 2010," (PDF) which evaluates the last three months of the Bush administration and the first nine months of the Obama administration. Have students use data and quotes from the document to create their own news stories and commentary pieces.
  • Think about how whistleblowers might effectively share sensitive information in modern times. Ask students to develop strategic plans for how they would leak something like the Pentagon Papers in today's world. For example, would they post the papers on their own website? Share them anonymously on a site like Wikileaks.com? Work with The New York Times, as Ellsberg did during the Vietnam War? After students share their ideas, compare them to Ellsberg's thoughts on this topic by reading the article, "What Would Daniel Ellsberg Do With the Pentagon Papers Today?"
  • Compare the facts revealed in the Pentagon Papers to presidential rhetoric during the Vietnam War. Students can reference the Pentagon Papers in books or online(scroll to the bottom of the page for a Table of Contents). Presidential speeches to consider include:
  • Watch and discuss other POV films relating to protest, the Vietnam War and the role of journalists, including The Camden 28, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe and War Feels Like War. A lesson plan is provided for each film.

Daniel Ellsberg's Website

Ellsberg's site includes an archive of his articles, interviews and lectures since the 1950s. He also keeps a blog where he comments on current events.
National Whistleblowers Center

This advocacy group seeks to help individuals speak out about wrongdoing in the workplace without fear of retaliation. The site includes profiles of whistleblowers and FAQs on laws that protect whistleblowers.
Mount Holyoke College. "The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition."

This online copy of the Pentagon Papers organizes materials by topics and years addressed; a summary is provided for each section. Scroll to the bottom of the page for links to additional chapters.

University of Southern California. "Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers."
The University of Southern California's Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership provides background information on key players and events related to the leak of the Pentagon Papers, as well as a timeline, in connection with a play.

Beeson, Ann. "Whistleblowers: An Interview with Daniel Ellsberg and John Dean." The Huffington Post, 14 September 2009.

This Huffington Post article features quotes from Ellsberg and Dean about the impact of their actions as whistleblowers, as well as their views about the similarities between the Vietnam War/Watergate era and modern times.


These standards are drawn from "Content Knowledge," a compilation of content standards and benchmarks for K-12 curriculum by McRel (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning).

Behavioral Studies
Standard 4: Understands conflict, cooperation and interdependence among individuals, groups and institutions.

Standard 2: Understands the essential characteristics of limited and unlimited governments.

Standard 13: Understands the character of American political and social conflict and factors that tend to prevent or lower its intensity.

Standard 14: Understands issues concerning the disparities between ideals and reality in American political and social life.

Standard 13: Understands the forces of cooperation and conflict that shape the divisions of Earth's surface.

Language Arts
Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process.
Standard 7: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts.
Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.

U.S. History
Standard 31: Understands economic, social and cultural developments in the contemporary United States.

World History
Standard 44: Understands the search for community, stability and peace in an interdependent world.

Cari Ladd, M.Ed., is an educational writer with a background in secondary education and media development. Previously, she served as PBS Interactive's director of education, overseeing the development of curricular resources tied to PBS programs, the PBS TeacherSource website (now PBS Teachers) and online teacher professional development services. She has also taught in Maryland and Northern Virginia.