Friday, April 30, 2010

Off the Record . . . er, Deep Background . . . er, Not for Attribution . . .


If part of your job involves talking to the media, there are times when you want to give them information, but don’t want to be cited as the source. And there are rules for arranging that. The problem is, the rules are squishy, and often interpreted differently by the source and the reporter – and they can get you in trouble.

Most recently a tweet by the New York Times’ technology blogger, Nick Bilton, backfired over a misunderstanding of these rules. After an interview with the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, Bilton wrote that Zuckerberg doesn’t believe in privacy – a serious charge for the head of that far-reaching media platform. Bilton acknowledged in the tweet that the comment was “off the record,” but maintains that “off the record” means he can use the information without direct attribution. Since he didn’t quote Zuckerberg directly as saying he doesn’t believe in privacy, he felt that he was abiding by the rules.

In another tweet, Bilton later said that he had discussed the attribution rules in detail during the interview. And Zuckerberg has not complained. Still, the tweet has stirred up something of a furor over how Bilton interpreted "off the record."

In fact, “off the record” generally means that the information cannot be used at all. If a source is allowing the information to be used without being cited, it is described as “not for attribution.”

Traditionally, there have been several different categories for presenting information to journalists that is not fully on the record. Here they are, as described in the NYU Journalism Handbook:

“On background”: a reporter can use the information without using the source’s name anywhere in the article.

“Not for attribution”: a reporter may identify the source by general reference – “highly placed government official” – but not by name.

“Off the record”: the reporter should not use the information at all, unless it is confirmed on the record by another source.

Any restriction must be made clear before the information is presented; you can’t say after making a statement that it’s off the record and expect a reporter to comply.

To make it all more complicated, the specific understandings of each category can vary widely, and many media are pushing back against any “off-the-record” status.

The most important rule, then, is to make it clear, in plain English, if there are any restrictions on any information – and even then, you better have great confidence in the cooperativeness of the reporter. You’re the one who could get burned.

- Potomac Communications Group

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