By Sarah Larson
The source on the other end of the phone was hesitant but insistent. A camera had been installed in a heating vent in the nurse’s office at a local meatpacking plant. They were filming examinations that the company nurses gave to injured workers who had come to them for medical treatment, my caller said.
At first, I thought the caller was another crazy. Lots of people – some just lonely, some just looking for attention, some grappling with mental health issues – liked to call the newsroom at night with wild stories, and as the night cops reporter, I was often the one on the other end of the phone.
But this call felt different. First of all, the caller was a woman; in my experience, most of the crank calls to newsrooms came from men. Second of all, I could almost taste the fear in her voice, a thick metallic flavoring that seeped through the phone the first few times that she called.
She wanted to go “off the record.” But she didn’t really know what that meant. She wanted me to just print a story that said exactly what she told me about the company she claimed to work at, without my even knowing, much less printing, her name or identifying characteristics.
That, I told her, was not how this worked.
So How Does It Really Work?
I didn’t blame my then-unnamed source for not understanding the nuance of “off the record” reporting. Many people – perhaps even most people – don’t. I blame that on decades of unrealistic TV shows and movies, where a source drops a bombshell on a reporter, and the scene cuts to the next day’s newspaper with a banner headline – or, today, a banner headline on a website and a breaking news tweet. Never mind the hours of reporting that would, in reality, have gone into verifying that story.
So here, we pull back the curtain and explain – or at least try to – the terms and nuance behind various types of unnamed reporting.
First, it’s important to understand that “off the record” means different things to different journalists. There are no comprehensive, agreed-upon rules. Every publication, and, indeed, every reporter, has her own set of standards and definitions.
My personal approach was to offer “off the record” terms to certain people but generally not to others. Everyday people and even some business leaders got some leeway – lots of people are nervous talking to reporters and sometimes blurt out things they wish they hadn’t. Particularly as I got older and, hopefully, wiser, I learned to discern the difference between a savvy source who inadvertently revealed something juicy and a “civilian” who simply misspoke out of anxiety.
However, I almost never went off the record with politicians or other public servants. My job as a reporter was to explain the world to my readers and to answer the questions they would want answered. It was not to get my own questions answered privately but then not share that insight with the public. Public figures should be able and willing to speak publicly, or not at all.
In the course of nearly 20 years in the news business, I heard all manner of post-foot-in-mouth pleas to retract an ill-advised statement:
- Politician who calls back after the on-the-record interview is over: “That thing I said, I wish I hadn’t said it. Can you forget I said it?” Me: “No.”
- Politician who got backlash from the published story for the thing he said during the on-the-record interview: “That was off the record!” Me: “No, it wasn’t.”
Establish Clear Terms Ahead of Time
It is best practice in every news interview for the reporter and the source to mutually agree upon the terms of the conversation, clearly, and in advance. Can the source be quoted by name? Can the reporter use the information if they leave out the name? If they can’t use the person’s name, can the reporter at least describe the person’s job, to establish their authority regarding the information they are sharing? Securing verbal agreement to those terms before proceeding with the interview is always a good idea.
That’s where the news industry jargon comes in. In general, these are the terms and broad definitions many journalists use to describe the varying levels of source protection. Again, keep in mind, your mileage may vary.
- On the record: This is simple and clear and is the standard for most reporting. Everything shared in the interview – from punchy quotes to in-depth background information – can be printed and attributed to the source by name. Note that anything that happens in the interview is fair game – every grimace, every smirk, every side comment.
- Off the record: Establish the terms for usage from the start, but in general, nothing from an off-the-record conversation can be used for publication. Journalists do not typically like these types of conversations, and do not agree to them readily unless a compelling reason to do so can be established. Sources try to bring their own agendas without the accountability of on-the-record comments. They can be valuable for context and clarity, however.
The next two terms are varying degrees of the same thing, and both are murky. It is imperative that the source and the reporter agree upon the terms before the conversation.
- On background: Typically, this means that the reporter can publish the information and describe, but not name, the source. In a Season 2 episode of the West Wing, when White House Press Secretary C.J. Cregg met privately with reporters to leak the news that the president was going to reveal a major bombshell regarding his health, her terms were “Notebooks, no tape recorders. This story’s embargoed for an hour, and you’ll identify me as a senior White House official.” On background is often the way reporters get important news tips that break a real news story.
- On deep background: This typically means that the information being provided cannot be attributed to the source. It is often a tip to a reporter that then must be verified and reported through other on-the-record means. Too often, public figures will try to claim “not for attribution” for some ridiculously banal comment, but sometimes, a deep background tip is really the break in a huge story, as it was with my mysterious late night caller.
How to Decide on Terms
As PR professionals, we always advise our clients to approach off-the-record or background conversations with care. Any degree of this type of interaction requires one vital element: trust between the journalist and the source.
When deciding whether to approach a journalist with an off-the-record or background tip, consider how well you know the reporter’s beat. Will the information be of value to her and her readers? Is the information valuable to the public, overall?
Consider, too, how well you know the reporter as an individual. Have you shared sensitive information with her before? Were you able to agree on terms of a previous conversation, and did she and the publication uphold those terms?
That type of trust really only can be developed over time. It also can be subject to the whims of an editor with whom you do not have a relationship. A reporter may have agreed not to use a source’s name, but by the time the piece gets to the editors, they decide that agreement is not in the publication’s best interest. Either the piece gets killed or the reporter has to go back to the source and renegotiate terms.
Bottom line: if you are at all uncertain about the terms of a conversation, don’t say anything you wouldn’t want to see printed on the front page or home page.
And remember, too, that even if both parties agree to go off the record or on background, the impressions and feelings created in the mind of the journalist by that conversation are long-lasting and can shape future coverage.
Many significant news stories have started out with deep background tips from a mysterious source. That was the case with my late night caller from the meatpacking plant.
When she first called, she was frightened but insistent. Over the course of several more calls, I won her trust, and then the trust of one of her colleagues. We eventually met in person, and the women retained an attorney who filed a suit against the plant, alleging that a video camera hidden in an office at the plant violated state laws protecting patients’ right to privacy and confidentiality.
The story announcing the lawsuit went A1, above-the-fold, fully on the record, and with art. (Translation = it was published on the top of the front page of the newspaper, with a photo of the plaintiffs as they announced their suit.)
If the source hadn’t taken a leap of faith and called the newsroom, and if I hadn’t agreed to that initial, deep background conversation, the story might never have come to light. That illustrates why it’s worthwhile to understand how to navigate sensitive conversations between journalists and sources.