Leaked to? Or obtained by? It matters which.

The currently oft-used phrase “leaked to” seems to have largely replaced “obtained by” in the discussion of documents public officials would rather keep under wraps but that surface anyway in our nation’s media.

The phrases are sometimes used interchangeably. They shouldn’t be. Both phrases are freighted with meaning and intent.  Leaked suggests an image of a passive journalist who is merely the vehicle through which the “leaker” exposes information he or she feels is in the public interest to  know that would otherwise be suppressed, or is  information meant to damage an individual, a cause, or a party. (See: DNC and WikiLeaks.)

“Obtained by,” on the other hand, gives the reporter more credit for ferreting out the information or documents in the noble and legitimate journalistic pursuit of the truth.  Here the journalist is an active player, not merely spun by someone with ulterior motives.

The use of the work “leaks” tends to come from those who don’t like them, currently administration officials who would rather focus on the act of disclosure than on the substance of what is disclosed. In so doing, the public’s attention is distracted from the real issues at hand.

Politicians tend to do this, to manipulate language to their advantage.  Consider: “death tax” versus “estate tax.” By adopting the former, media are accepting the term used by right-wing ideologues and thereby influencing how the public perceives the issue. “Job creator” is yet another faux phrase that has found its way into dictionaries and into public discourse.

Of late, I’ve noticed a troubling tendency by even the so-called “mainstream media” to adopt the “leaked to” formulation, essentially allowing critics to define the terms of the debate. Sort of like the casual use of the intentionally pejorative “Democrat Party” instead of “Democratic Party.”

Then there is “climate change,” which seems to have replaced “global warming” in general usage. But lest you think this is a partisan screed, consider “revenue enhancement,” used by budget wonks of the other persuasion and occasionally insinuated into media reports.  What that usually means is a “tax increase.”  These are politically-inspired perversions of the language intended to make certain inconvenient facts less controversial and more palatable.

This has simply got to stop!  In my decades as a reporter, I obtained many documents that were not intended for public view.  This used to be known as enterprise. Granted that sources have an agenda, even if it is to further the public good by outing information that he or she believes should be known. It’s up to the reporter to consider the source in evaluating whatever facts or documents he or she obtains.

But a good reporter is not simply a passive vehicle for leaks and leakers.  A good reporter cultivates sources and seeks to obtain information from sources within or outside the government. They may be actual documents or simply facts that can be verified from other sources.  Words matter, and how they are applied to the efforts of journalists to report the truth also matter.

By focusing on “leaks,” the administration – and its media enablers, wittingly or unwittingly – are setting up whistleblowers and reporters as villains, even traitors, rather than as patriots and professionals providing the information a free society needs in order to remain so.


  1. Ken Rossignol on August 6, 2017 at 2:49 pm

    Well said.

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