secrecy {fragments}

~ musings on secrecy ~

Citing is Important

Isn’t it customary to cite your sources? Any undergrad is acutely aware of the perils of not doing so.

Take this recent editorial on leaks (emphasis added):

There are “whistleblower leaks.” These come from individuals who believe that a politician, staffer, lobbyist, or a corporation has committed and then hid an illegal act, and violated the public trust.

The second kind of leak comes from individuals who have a self-interest in alerting the media to what may be scandals. These leaks could come from political candidates, elected and appointed officials, and those in corporate business who want to eliminate a competitor, but don’t want to have their hands dirtied by the revelation. Most of these leaks fall into the sub-category, Gossip. Far too often, the media take the allegations, do minimal investigation, publish their findings, but never ask the critical question–“Why are you telling me this?”

A third kind of leak is the “trial balloon.” A government official or corporate executive wants to find out what the public thinks of an idea or plan, but doesn’t want anyone to know who is behind it. Often, the media will report something to the effect, “Rumors abound in Washington that  . . .” If opinion leaders and the public like the idea–and politicians spent millions of dollars to have polls tell them what to think–then the proposal is implemented. If there’s a negative reaction to the trial balloon, the plan is locked into obscurity, and the source is exonerated from all negative feedback.

A fourth leak, a variant of the trial balloon, is the veiled news source.

The first three descriptions of leaks, or typologies, are suggestive of Stephen Hess’ The Government/Press Connection: Press Officers and Their Offices (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1984, pp.77-79). I mentioned Hess in several editions of the Lexicon (entry on leaks) and in my commentary on the Coolidge Report and wikileaks. Hess outlines leaks as follows – kinda similar to the unattributed descriptions in the editorial, no?

Ego Leak: Giving information primarily to satisfy a sense of self.

Goodwill Leak: Information offered to “accumulate credit” as a play for a future favor.

Policy Leak: A straightforward pitch for or against a proposal using some document or insider information as the lure to get more attention than might be otherwise justified. The leak of the Pentagon Papers falls into this category.

Animus Leak: Used to settle grudges; information is released in order to cause embarrassment to another person.

Trial-Balloon Leak: Revealing a proposal that is under consideration in order to assess its assets and liabilities. Usually proponents have too much invested in a proposal to wan to leave it to the vagaries of the press and public opinion. More likely, those who send up a trial balloon want to see it shot down, and because it is easier to generate opposition to almost anything than to build support, this is the most likely effect.

Whistleblower Leak: Usually used by career personnel; going to the press may be the last resort of frustrated civil servants who feel they cannot resolve their dispute through administrative channels. Hess is careful to point out that Whistleblowing is not synonymous with leaking.

The “veiled news source,” or “cloaked” leak, appears early in the work of Seymour Hersh (1967) and Hugh M. Culbertson, whose research was supported by the American Newspaper Publishers Association. See

Culbertson, Hugh M. 1980. Leaks–A dilemma for editors as well as officials. Journalism Quarterly, 57(3): 402-535.

Culbertson, Hugh M. 1978. Veiled attribution–An element of style? Journalism Quarterly, 55(3):456-465.

Culbertson, Hugh M. and Somerick, Nancy. 1977. Variables affect how persons view unnamed news sources. Journalism Quarterly, 54(1):58-69.

Neither Hess or Hersh is mentioned in the editorial. While it can be argued that editorials aren’t scholarly (peer-reviewed) papers, it is expected we acknowledge the work of others we use. This is the public responsibility of researchers.



Written by S.

April 12, 2014 at 12:01 am