The Guardian has labeled Edward Snowden a whistleblower after the NSA contractor revealed himself Sunday as the source for several recent surveillance scoops.
But some news organization have been less quick to describe Snowden as a "whistleblower," opting instead for terms like "source" or "leaker."
Associated Press standards editor Tom Kent told staff Monday that "whether the actions exposed by Snowden and [WikiLeaks source Bradley] Manning constitute wrongdoing is hotly contested, so we should not call them whistle-blowers on our own at this point."
"A better term to use on our own is 'leakers,'" Kent wrote in a memo, obtained by The Huffington Post. "Or, in our general effort to avoid labels and instead describe behavior, we can simply write what they did: they leaked or exposed or revealed classified information.
News organizations are often reluctant to be perceived as tipping the scale when it comes to suggesting that a source's motivation for leaking classified material is justified. The term "whistleblower" is used to describe someone who has exposed government wrongdoing, waste, or illegality.
A similar issue arose following early stories on Manning and WikiLeaks. In 2010, I reported that the White House expressed its view to news organizations that WikiLeaks shouldn't be labeled a "whistleblower," a more positive term that suggests a source's actions were justified.
The AP's style guidelines are often followed in newsrooms, where discussions about Snowden -- and his motivations -- are surely taking place today among editors and reporters. The full memo is below:
With two secret-spilling stories in the news -- NSA/Snowden and Wikileaks/Manning -- let's review our use of the term "whistle-blower" (hyphenated, per the Stylebook).
A whistle-blower is a person who exposes wrongdoing. It's not a person who simply asserts that what he has uncovered is illegal or immoral. Whether the actions exposed by Snowden and Manning constitute wrongdoing is hotly contested, so we should not call them whistle-blowers on our own at this point. (Of course, we can quote other people who call them whistle-blowers.)
A better term to use on our own is "leakers." Or, in our general effort to avoid labels and instead describe behavior, we can simply write what they did: they leaked or exposed or revealed classified information.
Sometimes whether a person is a whistle-blower can be established only some time after the revelations, depending on what wrongdoing is confirmed or how public opinion eventually develops.