Whistle-blower or leaker?

With two secret-spilling stories in the news — NSA/ Edward Snowden and Wikileaks/Bradley Manning — we reviewed for our staff today our use of the term “whistle-blower” (hyphenated, per the AP Stylebook).

You can look it up: 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 after the revelations have sunk in, depending on what wrongdoing is confirmed or how public opinion eventually develops.

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About Tom Kent

Deputy managing editor and standards editor of The Associated Press, responsible for accuracy and balance across all AP news services. Frequent contributor to forums and conferences on newsroom ethics and organization. Adjunct professor at the School of International Affairs and Journalism School of Columbia University. Former AP correspondent or bureau chief in Russia, Iran, Belgium, Australia and the United States. Graduate of Yale University. Languages: French, Russian, Spanish. @tjrkent