The PR battle over Edward Snowden — in two polls

According to a new CNN/Opinion Research poll, Americans disapprove of Edward Snowden's leaks by a 52 percent to 44 percent margin.

But according to a Time magazine poll released last week, they think he did "a good thing" by a 54 percent to 30 percent margin.


A supporter holds a picture of Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee who leaked top-secret information about U.S. surveillance programs, outside the U.S. Consulate General in Hong Kong. Snowden, 29, surfaced publicly again Wednesday in Hong Kong, saying the United States has mounted massive hacking operations against hundreds of Chinese targets since 2009 as part of a global campaign. (Kin Cheung / AP)

The divergent findings between the two polls might suggest the American public is quickly turning on Snowden. But there's more to it than that.

The passage of time could indeed have contributed to the different findings; the Time poll was conducted Monday and Tuesday of last week, while the CNN poll was conducted Tuesday through Thursday. But more so than that, the two Snowden polls are a great example of how, when it comes to polls, the wording of the question is hugely important.

Here's the Time question: "Do you feel that the person who leaked the information about this secret program did a good thing in informing the American public or a bad thing?"

And here's the CNN question: "As you may know, details of the government collection of phone records and internet data were revealed when a former government contractor named Edward Snowden leaked classified information about those government programs to two newspapers. Do you approve or disapprove of Snowden's actions?"

In the first question, you'll notice that people are asked about Snowden "informing the American public" about a "secret program." That sounds less nefarious than the CNN poll's wording, which says he "leaked classified information."

Both use the word "leak" and convey much the same message, but the rest of the wording elicits a significantly different reaction -- undoubtedly mostly among people who aren't paying close attention to the matter.

The two different findings also suggest that there is a very real PR battle underway when it comes to Snowden.

His ability to cast himself as a do-gooder telling the American people something they need to know will be pitted against the government arguing that he was a misguided and disgruntled government employee who broke the law and is jeopardizing anti-terrorism efforts.

Whoever can define the conversation in their terms (and words) will have a big advantage.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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