News next: a journalism teacher's diary

April 17, 2010

Shh! it’s a secret

Whether basing a story on anonymous sources makes the story less credible is a subject of intense debate among news gatherers and news consumers.

People who provide information on condition that they won’t be identified may act out of malice, and may be seeking to mislead reporters or to tarnish the reputation of an enemy. The notorious case in which Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff sought to blunt criticism of the Bush Administration by leaking the identity of a CIA agent is a case in point.

There’s no doubt, though, that in some cases sources risk their livelihood or even their freedom by revealing confidential or secret information they believe the public should know.

A recent case of that kind illustrates both the kinds of agreements reporters make to gain access to information and the risks sources take to provide it.

On April 14, 2010, a federal grand jury indicted Thomas Drake, an employee of the National Security Agency, and accused him of passing classified information to The Baltimore Sun. (Because The Sun was not accused of wrongdoing, the reporter, Siobhan Gorman, was identified by prosecutors only as “Reporter A.”)

The Sun ran a series of articles that raised questions about NSA programs. One began

Two technology programs at the heart of the National Security Agency’s drive to combat 21st-century threats are stumbling badly, hampering the agency’s ability to fight terrorism and other emerging threats, current and former government officials say.

Another raised the likelihood that an electrical outage would paralyze the agency.

Here’s the deal Gorman made with Drake, according to the indictment:

(a) defendant DRAKE’s identity would never be revealed to Reporter A or anyone else; (b) Reporter A would use the attribution of “senior intelligence official” when defendant DRAKE provided information more singular in nature; (c) Reporter A would never use defendant DRAKE as a single source for information; (d) Reporter A would never tell defendant DRAKE who Reporter A’s other sources were; and (e) Reporter A would not comment on what other people recommended by defendant DRAKE to Reporter A had told Reporter A.

While this agreement appears to be carefully hammered out, too often reporters casually promise to protect a source. Complicating things further is the bewildering vocabulary that has come to encrust these agreements.

The issue of how you go about telling readers how you know what you know has become blurred by the related terms “off the record,” “on background” and “not for attribution.”

What these terms mean is open to debate. Here’s Slate’s take. 

Here’s The New York Times trying to explain its practice.

And here, for what it’s worth, is my take.

“Not for attribution” is the clearest. It means you base your story on what someone told you, who you will identify only through a general characterization of how he or she came to know what he’s saying. That’s what Gorman did when she attributed information to a “senior intelligence official.”

In recent years, as journalists have come to be criticized for over-reliance on anonymous sources, one thing many news organizations have done is to try to narrow the description of these sources to give the reader some hint of why the reporter regarded them as authoritative: so what might once have been called “law enforcement sources”–which could mean any cop or lawyer within a thousand miles–might now be “an investigator with first-hand knowledge who did not want to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press.”

“Off the record” means you can’t put it in the paper. I tell my reporters to respond to the offer to go off the record by refusing, and explaining that since they have many sources, someone else may give them the information on a not for attribution basis, and then the person offering it off the record will say “That son of a bitch screwed me and put what I told him in the paper anyway.”

The hoped-for result is that your source will then say, OK, you can use the information I’m giving you, either on a not-for-attribution basis or to to see if you can get the information independently through further reporting.

If you agree to keep the information from Source A off the record, you can’t say to another potential source, “I heard so and so, what do you know about it?” You have to look for documents or ask questions that will open that other source up without giving him an indication that you have already been told about the subject.

That’s what many people mean by “on background” or “on deep background”.

Another version of “on background”–one I prefer–is this: you can put what you were told in the paper, but you can’t attribute it. It rests on your own authority.

On background can also refer to a situation in which you’ve obtained documents under an agreement in which you can’t say how you got them.

An example from my own time as a reporter: Some years ago a person involved in a criminal case provided a copy of grand jury testimony to me. In doing so, that person committed a crime. But, as we know from the Pentagon Papers case, The Riverdale Press was entitled to publish that testimony and to rely on those documents in the event of a defamation suit.

I wrote several stories based on them, quoted them and sourced the information to the documents. For all my readers knew, the grand jury transcripts fell from the sky. No mention was ever made of how they came into the paper’s possession.

Sources are going to be even more confused than we are by this tangle of vocabulary. So when they say “off the record” or “on background”–terms they’ve read or seen on TV or in the movies–they often mean not for attribution–that is “Don’t quote me by name.”

What all this boils down to, in my opinion, is that a reporter should always negotiate the terms of the deal with his source, and should always remember that he’s making a promise on behalf of his news organization–a promise that should not be made lightly.

1 Comment »

  1. For more information about NSA Whistleblower Thomas Drake, visit the Save Tom Drake facebook page:

    Follow @savetomdrake on twitter:

    And if you agree with the Save Tom Drake cause, please sign the petition to stop the retaliatory prosecution of Thomas Drake.

    Comment by savetomdrake — August 22, 2010 @ 8:05 am | Reply

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