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John P. David Headshot

What Does the Source Say?

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When I was in high school, I read All the President's Men, by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about the Watergate scandal. Aside from being a fascinating read for a young guy who loved journalism, it was one of my first exposures to the concept of media sources and how they are treated by reporters and editors. In the book (and also in the Academy Award-nominated film starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman), the reporters juggle their sources and dance the fine lines of attribution as they investigate the Nixon administration's involvement in the Watergate break-in and beyond. Some information was "on the record." Some was "off the record," and still other nuggets were offered "on background." There was even information given on "deep background" by the most famous confidential source of all time, "Deep Throat." The interplay was fascinating, and in some instances they screwed up; improperly attributed and incorrect information ended up in print. Sometimes journalism is more art than science.

Recently, I have dealt with situations where individuals were upset with media coverage and felt they were misquoted by reporters. In one case, a friend of mine believed he was giving information "off the record," but the reporter printed it anyway and attributed it to him. As you can imagine, he was upset.

Next came my lecture, loosely titled "Never Go Off the Record... Well, Almost Never."

First, the requisite definitions according to the Associated Press:

On the record. The information can be used with no caveats, quoting the source by name.



Off the record. The information cannot be used for publication.



Background. The information can be published but only under conditions negotiated with the source. Generally, the sources do not want their names published but will agree to a description of their position. AP reporters should object vigorously when a source wants to brief a group of reporters on background and try to persuade the source to put the briefing on the record. These background briefings have become routine in many venues, especially with government officials.



Deep background. The information can be used but without attribution. The source does not want to be identified in any way, even on condition of anonymity.



In general, information obtained under any of these circumstances can be pursued with other sources to be placed on the record.

Most public relations pros tell you never to go off the record, and some reporters say there is no such thing as "off the record." As you can see by the AP guidelines, which say that "AP reporters should object vigorously...," journalists are not in the business of getting information off the record. They want information that can fill their newspaper, magazine, website or newscast.

Here's why I say never go off the record, and it's a bit of a different take. The main PR mantra is, "If you don't want to see it in print, then don't say it." I agree with this wholeheartedly, but I also don't like "off the record," because it is too easy to screw up. First, if you read the AP definitions, you will notice that the differences between "off the record," "background" and "deep background" are nuanced. And because most people don't know the difference, the true definition might not be honored. The source's concept of "off the record" and the reporter's might be different. Risky.

My other reason that you shouldn't go off the record has to do with control and responsibility. When you go off the record, you are adding another layer of responsibility for the journalist. Not only do they have to understand the story and properly quote you, but now you are asking them to make the appropriate notation -- either mental or physical -- that for one part of the conversation, you were on the record, while for another you were off. For busy reporters who are being hammered to produce more copy for shrinking wages, I think this too is a big risk.

But what about "almost never"? If you want to go off the record, it has to be strategic. For example, if you know of wrongdoing by a competitor but don't want it traced back to you, then give the information to a journalist off the record. If the information is accurate and the reporter can get confirmation elsewhere, then you have advanced your cause. Don't go off the record to gossip or just to show how smart you are. Aside from not being strategic, it opens you up to risk.

If you are ever in a situation where you want to share sensitive information with a journalist, the most important rule (after calling a PR person to help you) is to set very clear ground rules about attribution before the conversation starts.

Most media interviews are straightforward and on the record, but it helps to be knowledgeable about the definitions and rules of attribution.

Have you ever been misquoted or had information inaccurately attributed? I would enjoy hearing your feedback.

Cross-posted from DavidPRBlog.