UNT expert says perceptions of whistle-blowers is often harsh, but Snowden case may differ

Monday, June 24, 2013 - 18:49

DENTON (UNT), Texas — How are whistle-blowers viewed by others?

In most cases, people blame the whistle-blower rather than the wrongdoer, said Mary Curtis, Horace Brock Centennial Professor of Accounting in the University of North Texas College of Business, who has researched perceptions of whistle-blowers. But the case of National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden may differ from that norm – depending on the importance people place on privacy and security, she said.

“Almost always, people will be more willing to retaliate against the whistle-blower than against someone who is doing something wrong because we have such a strong ‘don’t tattle’ culture,” Curtis said. “We are told since kindergarten ‘don’t tattle,’ and even though we think we have outgrown it, it still affects us.”

In Snowden’s case, some perceptions may not be as harsh, she said, as his case involves one person reporting actions of the government — rather than one person reporting wrongdoing by another person.

“I think people are so freaked out about the government recording their private communications – and this has set a lot of people on edge and given others who already felt that way strong ammunition to support their feelings,” Curtis said.

Curtis was one of several UNT faculty members who examined how third-party observers treat wrongdoers and whistle-blowers; their research was presented at the 17th annual Ethics Research Symposium as part of the American Accounting Association's annual meeting in Washington, D.C., in August.

Curtis, who has researched why people become whistle-blowers, said Snowden seems to fit the psychological profile of a whistle-blower.

“Whistle-blowers are usually not well integrated into the community, they are not highly social beings, and they don’t care a lot about peer approval, and he seems to be very much of that ilk,” she said.

Debate swirls over whether Snowden is legally considered a whistle-blower – and whether people in the general public consider him a whistle-blower may depend on their views of privacy versus security, Curtis said.

“With national security whistle-blowing, you have the risk they are releasing national secrets and could be harming national security, so they impact a wide range of people in two very different ways,” Curtis said. “What he is doing really highlights the privacy versus security situation that has been going on since 9/11.”

Curtis can be reached at mary.curtis@unt.edu.

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