System-wide Demonization of Whistleblowers

I expect state and corporate media to pursue elitist interests. Therefore, when a whistleblower exposes malfeasance in the system, I expect the state/corporate media will attack the person who threatens the system that privileges the elitists. The malfeasance arising from within the system will be thrust to the margins of debate and the whistleblower will be demonized.

One might, though, expect more disinterested reporting from science-focused media and academic media. The case of Edward Snowden, US-government designated demon of the moment, reveals otherwise.

Newswise runs a headline “Agents Like Snowden Prone to Irrational Decision Making.”1 The Science News picked up on the story and ran its headline: “Agents Like Snowden Prone to Irrational Decision Making, Study Finds.”2 The implication is clear: because of his profession, Edward Snowden is likely to make bad decisions. Ergo, his decision to leak information about the widespread, warrantless spying by the US government and its agencies on Americans and people abroad is dubious.

The headline is important because it “… is a point of reference that influences whether a person will decide to read an article or not.”3

The Journal of Pragmatics agrees: “Newspaper headlines … are designed to optimize the relevance of their stories for their readers.”4 Relevance analysis “also explains the fact that skilled newspaper readers spend most of their reading time scanning the headlines—rather than reading the stories.”5

The Columbia University page cautioned: “Headline warning: Never allow cute, creative headlines to blind you to the need for accuracy. Be alert to headlines that have unintended meanings.”3

Among the headline do’s and don’ts on the Columbia University page were: “Don’t mislead reader.”3

The headlines stem from a Cornell University study into the rationality of decisions made by intelligence agents. The study was headed by Valerie Reyna, PhD, who oversees the Laboratory of Rational Decision Making that researches human judgment and decision making, numeracy and quantitative reasoning, risk and uncertainty, medical decision making, social judgment, and memory.

Do the headlines reporting the findings of the Cornell University study mislead the reader? Did the study even assess the rationality of Edward Snowden’s decision-making? Probably not since the publication is still forthcoming and the study must have occurred much before Snowden’s identity became public. Since the study does not touch on Edward Snowden, one may safely conclude that the headlines were misleading. Not only were the headlines misleading, they were contrary to the tenets of good science. Good science does not cherry-pick. A usual basis for a study’s publication in a peer-review science journal is that the subjects were randomly selected from a population and randomly assigned to conditions within the study. If random selection is not carried out, then the generalizability of a study’s results are limited. Edward Snowden would only represent a case study.

The source for the Newswise story is the Cornell University Newsroom. The text states:

U.S. intelligence agents — like the embattled Edward Snowden — are more prone to irrational inconsistencies in decision making when compared to college students and post-college adults. That’s according a new Cornell University study to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.1

Newswise is a free newswire for journalists. The contact information was for Syl Kacapyr of Cornell’s TV and radio studios. Kacapyr did not respond to my email inquiries.

Psychological Science asks, “But how rational are the individual men and women who are making the life-and-death decisions that influence national security?”6

I also emailed Dr Reyna and asked, “… given that your study finds that people’s decisions are influenced by how the risk scenario is framed, is not the presentation of Edward Snowden’s name followed by the finding of irrational decision-making leading?” Reyna did not reply back.

Obviously Snowden’s decision to release information about the inner workings of US spy agencies was irrational from the standpoint about a person only concerned about his own security and financial well-being. That is not, however, how Snowden framed his decision to become a whistleblower. One does not need to reach conclusions based on the depictions of Snowden’s personality by others. Media consumers can listen to Snowden and reach their own conclusions. Snowden offers his rationalizations in a video:

I think the public is owed an explanation of the motivations behind the people who make these disclosures that are outside of the democractic model. When you are subverting the power of government that’s a fundamentally dangerous thing to democracy…7

Does that sound like a person prone to irrational decision-making?

  1. Agents Like Snowden Prone to Irrational Decision Making,” Newswise, 9 July 2013. [] []
  2. Agents Like Snowden Prone to Irrational Decision Making, Study Finds,” Science Daily, 9 July 2013. []
  3. Headlines,” Cornell University. [] [] []
  4. Daniel Dor, “On newspaper headlines as relevance optimizers,” Journal of Pragmatics, 35, 2003. 696. []
  5. Dor, 695. []
  6. Wray Herbert, “Spooky Judgments: How Agents Think About Danger,” Psychological Science, 18 June 2013. []
  7. The Real News Network (TRNN), “NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden: ‘I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things.’” Dissident Voice, 9 June 2013. []

Kim Petersen is co-editor of Dissident Voice. He can be reached at: kim@dissidentvoice.org. Read other articles by Kim.