Off the Record — Not for Attribution: The Rules

Reporters and interview subjects frequently clash in confusion when trying to reach agreement on what can and cannot be quoted.

I’ve sat through endless and circular arguments by both hacks and flacks in press clubs and bars about the Rules of Attribution.

Few subjects result in more argument, misinformation, and frustration.

Let’s start with Off the Record, perhaps the most widely used form.

It means, at least in my interpretation, and there are others I’m sure, that none of the information can be used in a story unless if is verified and attributed to a separate source.

So, if your local politician tells you off the record that the head of government is a charter member of a swingers’ club then it can’t be published or broadcast unless you find an entirely different person to not only tell you the same thing but also allow their name to be used.

There’ a basic journalistic rule that says you cannot say something and then claim afterwards that it was off the record. The journalist is free to ignore the Off the Record claim and slap your name on the story.

In the real world, and assuming a journalist with some willingness to negotiate, it is possible for source and reporter to come to some form of agreement about what can be said and how.

But do keep in mind that once said, a journalist can, and often will, ignore your pleas and print your information.

What about Background, Not for Attribution by Name, Deep Background, and many others of their ilk?

It’s here in this thorny bush of terms and terminology that many a tear has been shed.

If you are talking to a reporter, or you are the reporter doing the seeking, then the two of you need a clear understanding of what the rules are.

Now I could go through the list and explain them but as I said earlier these so-called rules are open to so much interpretation and revision that they might as well be terms from a lost language.

Instead the two of you need a conversation free from the Rules, spoken in clear uncomplicated terms that sets out what can be said and who can be quoted and in what form.

So, if you really wan to stick it to your boss in the local newspaper but you don’t want to be seen as some modern version of a lurking Cassius with dagger in hand then you need an agreement ahead of time.

“What I am going to tell you is for your information only and you cannot use my name, or even hint that it came from within my organization. If you want to use it you have to get someone else to confirm it publicly.”

The journalist, if any good at all, will work hard to get those restrictions eased if not lifted.

Inexperienced reporters often try to use the Rules of Attribution to get information, any information, out of a source and then fall afoul of the subtitles and either burn a source unintentionally or end up with material they can’t publish at all.

Experienced journalists, and the most professional, will neither try such tricks nor agree to anything being Of the Record.

The number one rule for anyone approached by a reporter is never under any circumstances say anything that you wouldn’t want to see on television, blared from radio, or splashed across the front page.

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