September 2, 2004

Somewhere, someone is talking to a reporter. And that someone may be asking the reporter to talk off the record or not for attribution. What’s a reporter to do?
Start with the story. Ask:

  • Is the story crucial to the public? Does it further equip readers and viewers to make responsible decisions in this democracy? Or is it simply a scoop? 
  • Is the information this source will provide crucial to the story? 
  • Does this source have firsthand knowledge of what he or she is describing? Can you report the nature of that knowledge to help the public judge the source’s reliability? Is this source the only person with firsthand knowledge or is there someone else who could provide the same information on the record?
  • Is the source targeting an individual or group of individuals, and if so, does the source benefit? How? Who else benefits? How?
  • How would the source be harmed by publication of his or her name? Can you make that clear to the audience? Who else might be harmed?

If, after asking and answering these questions, it is worth continuing the conversation with the source, here are some strategies to consider:

  • Ask the source why he or she wants to go off the record. Although off-the-record status in Washington was originally a reporter’s tool for getting the thoughts of whistleblowers and critics into the news, now it’s become a tool of the powerful.
  • Warn the source that if the information is published, his name will be revealed to at least one editor back in the newsroom. Ask him if he’ll come forward if you are subpoenaed, as reporters have been since Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA operative was revealed.
  • Ask the source to suggest others who can at least confirm the information he provided and possibly go on the record.
  • End every conversation on the record. Go over each piece of information. Can this be on the record? What about this?

All this will chip away at the source’s resistance to being quoted.

Every anonymous source weakens journalism’s credibility. In the end, ask yourself whether the loss of public trust is worth the public gain.

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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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