“Whistleblower” – it’s a word that we have used ourselves here at Journalism.co.uk to define WikiLeaks, the site currently publishing batches of more than 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables and at the heart of debate over the rights and wrongs of doing so.
But when news organisations use this word to describe WikiLeaks, what, if anything, are they communicating about the body itself? This is a question raised in an interesting post on Yahoo’s The Cutline news blog, which reports that this issue has actually led to a series of news organisations asking their journalists not to use the word in their reports.
“We’ve had ‘whistleblower’ in some copy but have decided not to use it any longer,” AP spokesman Paul Colford told The Cutline. “Our description now reflects the site’s own name: a website that specializes in displaying leaked information.”
Colford didn’t say whether the AP considers “whistle-blower” to be inaccurate. He simply said that “we think we have a better, clearer description, and that’s what we’re using.”
NBC News spokeswoman Lauren Kapp also told The Cutline that the network was retiring “whistle-blower” in its WikiLeaks reports, even though it called WikiLeaks a “whistle-blower” on last Monday’s “Nightly News With Brian Williams.” Reuters, which has used “whistleblower” since the State Department leak, no longer uses it either. “Our style guidelines ask that reporters not describe WikiLeaks as a whistle-blower,” Reuters spokeswoman Erin Kurtz said.
So what’s the problem? The Cutline looks at the true definition of the term and the impact this could have on a reader/listener/viewer.
The term “whistle-blower” is usually used to describe someone within, say, a corporation or government agency who risks a career to speak out against corruption or fraud. It may just seem like a semantic issue, but how the media describe WikiLeaks can affect public perceptions. A whistle-blower is probably viewed positively, as an individual speaking out against wrongdoing.
Editors note: In hindsight, it makes sense that ‘whistleblower’ is not the most appropriate term for an organisation that is in fact a platform for whistleblowers. But then, “a website that specializes in displaying leaked information” is not exactly the most concise. I think ‘whistleblower’s website’ is a good compromise. Feel free to chime with suggestions though.