I read lots of news media. I write a few headlines. I know point-of-view framing when I see it.
And I’m seeing it regularly above ostensibly objective news reports on fugitive leaker Ed Snowden.
See what I just did? That’s one descriptive frame for the 29-year-old who spilled NSA secrets and ran. “Whistleblower” is another, though far from fitting.
Yet that word is in news coverage heads at The Guardian, USA Today, Newsday, New York Daily News, Huffington Post, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Fox News (left) and even the Voice of America government news service. It sometimes appears as “whistle-blower,” but there’s a much more important question than proper style:
Why do supposedly impartial journalists elevate him to the high road taken by whistleblowers?
Public-interest heroes don’t commit thefts — they blow the whistle on them. They tell regulators, lawmakers and sometimes the media about kickbacks, bribes, collusion, tolerated harassment, conflicts of interest, lawbreaking.
Whistles properly are blown internally first to a manager, HR rep, compliance officer, ombudsman or externally to law enforcers and perhaps an oversight committee of Congress, a state legislature or municipal council.
Snowden flipped past these channels to feed national security secrets about court-approved communications monitoring to Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian. Opinion columnists and social media users are fully in bounds to cast him as a brave defender of liberty, transparency and the American Way. Not so the writers of headlines displayed with this post.
We won’t see that W-word in Associated Press copy. “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,” standards editor Tom Kent told wire service writers and editors June 10.
“A better term to use on our own is ‘leakers,’ ” Kent wrote in a memo quoted 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.”
Yale Law School lecturer Adam Cohen also addresses the issue. He rejects comparisons linking Snowden to 1971 Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, who helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam War. (Espionage charges were dropped because of misconduct by federal prosecutors.)
Writing for Time, Cohen distinguishes between each man’s crusade:
There is a significant difference between Ellsberg and Snowden. The Pentagon Papers revealed that the government had ramped up the war in Vietnam and lied to Congress and the public about it, which is clearly wrong. But in Snowden’s case, it’s still unclear whether the NSA’s spying was in fact legal and if what Snowden did was simply leak classified information because he objects to how the government has chosen to defend national security. If the surveillance was legal, Snowden . . . might not look like a whistle-blower.
Another bit of headline framing also deserves flagging. Some media say Snowden “fears prosecution,” a point-of-view perspective that seems to cast him as someone hounded like a modern Jean Valjean.
No doubt he’s afraid of being picked up and sent home for trial, but a voluntary fugitive whose acts invite prosecution hardly warrants being cast as a fearful victim — as those heads arguably do.
Obviously no conspiracy is afoot. Like many newsroom decisions, these words are chosen on deadline and off the cuff. They come to a copy editor’s mind, they’re dramatic and onto the screen they go — carrying more value and opinion than intended.
Language precision matters. Word choices can let subconscious points of view leak into publication.