Tom Jones: “‘On background’ is common journalism lingo. What does it mean?”

The Poynter Report with Tom Jones asks “‘On background’ is common journalism lingo. What does it mean?”:

Here are two phrases that often come up in journalism — in fact, they come up so often that even non-journalists have heard of them.

Off the record. And … On background.

What do they mean, exactly?

First, off the record. Here’s how it’s supposed to work:

A source should ask a reporter first if something can be off the record. Then the reporter can agree or refuse. The source then can decide whether or not they want to share that information. If the reporter agrees to an off-the-record request, the ethical thing to do is not report or even repeat that information. Off-the-record comments are supposed to remain strictly between the source and the reporter.

Now, what about “on background?” Typically, that means a source shares information that a journalist is free to use with one caveat: The journalist should not attribute that information to a specific or named person. Again, the agreement should be made before the source reveals the information.

“On background” can be especially tricky, which led The Verge to change its policy regarding reporting “on background.” Editor-in-chief Nilay Patel wrote about it in a story published Wednesday on The Verge’s website.

Patel wrote, “We’re doing this because big tech companies in particular have hired a dizzying array of communications staff who routinely push the boundaries of acceptable sourcing in an effort to deflect accountability, pass the burden of truth to the media, and generally control the narratives around the companies they work for while being annoying as hell to deal with.”

Perhaps here it should be noted that The Verge is a blog mostly about technology and it writes a lot about gadgets, electronics, products and that sort of stuff. Oftentimes, that means The Verge hears from PR types who pitch those various gadgets and products. Is that a bit different than the kind of sources, say, The New York Times or Washington Post or CNN deal with covering news stories? Perhaps. But it’s interesting to see what The Verge is doing.

Patel writes, “From now on, the default for communications professionals and people speaking to The Verge in an official capacity will be ‘on the record.’ We will still honor some requests to be on background, but at our discretion and only for specific reasons that we can articulate to readers.”

Patel then made the definitions of “on the record” and “on background” clear.

About “on background,” Patel writes, it “means you can talk to us and we will not specifically identify you, instead using a descriptor like ‘company spokesperson.’”

Patel went on to essentially say that companies simply can’t start an email with “on background” or “off the record” or “not for attribution” and automatically assume that anything that comes after will not be used or specifically sourced. Patel stresses that the terms must be agreed upon before the information is shared.

This is similar to what happened in September when Politico’s West Wing Playbook published an email from Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin. The subject line of Rubin’s email was “OFF THE RECORD,” but Alex Thompson, one of West Wing Playbook’s authors, said he never agreed to the email being off the record and, therefore, anything Rubin wrote could be published.

Was he right? Well, yeah, technically. But was it kind of a crummy thing to do to another journalist? Many thought so.

To avoid confusion and problems, sources and journalists should assume everything is on the record unless there is communication between the two. And to further avoid confusion and problems, yes, any agreements about “on the record” and “on background” should be reached before the source says anything.

But, also, let’s get to the real world for a minute. Every journalist deals with their sources differently. Certainly, it’s always preferable to get the sources on the record all the time. But that isn’t always possible. And journalists, occasionally, have to make a tough call. Sometimes “off the record” and “on background” will be honored by a journalist before an agreement is technically reached depending on the information and the relationship with the source. If it’s a valuable source that a journalist needs for future stories, he or she likely will lean towards keeping the source happy.

But I appreciate The Verge wanting to be completely clear and transparent moving forward. That is never a bad policy.

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