By:
November 11, 2021

Here are two phrases that often come up in journalism — in fact, they come up so often that even non-journalists have heard of them.

Off the record. And … On background.

What do they mean, exactly?

First, off the record. I wrote about this recently, but let’s go over it again real quick. Here’s how it’s supposed to work:

A source should ask a reporter first if something can be off the record. Then the reporter can agree or refuse. The source then can decide whether or not they want to share that information. If the reporter agrees to an off-the-record request, the ethical thing to do is not report or even repeat that information. Off-the-record comments are supposed to remain strictly between the source and the reporter.

Now, what about “on background?” Typically, that means a source shares information that a journalist is free to use with one caveat: The journalist should not attribute that information to a specific or named person. Again, the agreement should be made before the source reveals the information.

“On background” can be especially tricky, which led The Verge to change its policy regarding reporting “on background.” Editor-in-chief Nilay Patel wrote about it in a story published Wednesday on The Verge’s website.

Patel wrote, “We’re doing this because big tech companies in particular have hired a dizzying array of communications staff who routinely push the boundaries of acceptable sourcing in an effort to deflect accountability, pass the burden of truth to the media, and generally control the narratives around the companies they work for while being annoying as hell to deal with.”

Perhaps here it should be noted that The Verge is a blog mostly about technology and it writes a lot about gadgets, electronics, products and that sort of stuff. Oftentimes, that means The Verge hears from PR types who pitch those various gadgets and products. Is that a bit different than the kind of sources, say, The New York Times or Washington Post or CNN deal with covering news stories? Perhaps. But it’s interesting to see what The Verge is doing.

Patel writes, “From now on, the default for communications professionals and people speaking to The Verge in an official capacity will be ‘on the record.’ We will still honor some requests to be on background, but at our discretion and only for specific reasons that we can articulate to readers.”

Patel then made the definitions of “on the record” and “on background” clear.

About “on background,” Patel writes, it “means you can talk to us and we will not specifically identify you, instead using a descriptor like ‘company spokesperson.’”

Patel went on to essentially say that companies simply can’t start an email with “on background” or “off the record” or “not for attribution” and automatically assume that anything that comes after will not be used or specifically sourced. Patel stresses that the terms must be agreed upon before the information is shared.

This is similar to what happened in September when Politico’s West Wing Playbook published an email from Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin. The subject line of Rubin’s email was “OFF THE RECORD,” but Alex Thompson, one of West Wing Playbook’s authors, said he never agreed to the email being off the record and, therefore, anything Rubin wrote could be published.

Was he right? Well, yeah, technically. But was it kind of a crummy thing to do to another journalist? Many thought so.

To avoid confusion and problems, sources and journalists should assume everything is on the record unless there is communication between the two. And to further avoid confusion and problems, yes, any agreements about “on the record” and “on background” should be reached before the source says anything.

But, also, let’s get to the real world for a minute. Every journalist deals with their sources differently. Certainly, it’s always preferable to get the sources on the record all the time. But that isn’t always possible. And journalists, occasionally, have to make a tough call. Sometimes “off the record” and “on background” will be honored by a journalist before an agreement is technically reached depending on the information and the relationship with the source. If it’s a valuable source that a journalist needs for future stories, he or she likely will lean towards keeping the source happy.

But I appreciate The Verge wanting to be completely clear and transparent moving forward. That is never a bad policy.

A Rittenhouse trial explainer

Kyle Rittenhouse is sworn in before he testifies at his trial at the Kenosha County Courthouse on Wednesday. (Mark Hertzberg/Pool Photo via AP)

Fascinating breaking news television on Wednesday as the big cable news networks — as well as several news outlet’s websites — carried Kyle Rittenhouse’s testimony in his trial for homicide. Rittenhouse is on trial for shooting three and killing two during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August 2020. Aside from Rittenhouse’s testimony, there were dramatics as the judge in the case, Bruce Schroeder, sent out the jury more than once to scold lead prosecutor Thomas Binger for his line of questioning.

At one point, Schroeder told Binger in a raised voice, “Don’t get brazen with me!”

If you’re like me, you know what the case is about, but you haven’t necessarily followed every moment of the trial. So when it came to Schroeder’s rulings and demeanor, you might have asked, “Is this right? Is the prosecutor crossing a line? Is the judge being deferential to the defense and being mean to the prosecution?”

That’s why CNN’s coverage, especially during Wednesday’s lunch recess, was so valuable. Anchor Ana Cabrera led an excellent discussion with CNN legal analyst Laura Coates and civil rights attorney Areva Martin that helped viewers better understand what was going on, including why, perhaps, the prosecutor was being admonished by the judge. They also did an excellent job talking about the consequences of being on a judge’s bad side and how the jury can sometimes pick up on that.

Both Coates and Martin agreed that, while surprising, the defense’s decision to put Rittenhouse on the stand was effective at times. But, also, both wouldn’t go as far as to say that Rittenhouse would be found not guilty.

All in all, the discussion did what it was supposed to do: It gave viewers more insight into the trial, especially because Coates and Martin know more about these kinds of things than pretty much anyone watching. And credit to Cabrera for asking smart questions — the kind of questions viewers were thinking.

Woof, Blitzer!

CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer got dragged on social media for a tweet he sent out Tuesday regarding gas prices. Blitzer took a photo of gas prices at an Exxon station and tweeted, “FYI. Gas prices today here in Washington DC.” The prices were $4.29 for regular, $4.49 for plus and $4.79 for supreme.

Almost immediately, Blitzer was called out.

Sylvan Lane, who covers finance and economy for The Hill, tweeted, “The average price for a gallon of regular grade gas in DC today was $3.60, according to @AAAnews.”

Martin Austermuhle, a reporter for WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C., tweeted, “@wolfblitzer, please stop this. There’s a handful of comically expensive gas stations around D.C., and that you happen to live or work by one does not mean it is representative! The citywide average for regular gas this week is $3.62, about 20 cents above the national average.”

There were dozens more, but you get the drift. It does feel a tad sloppy to pick out one station and post it online without noticing that other gas stations in the area are not charging as much for gas.

What’s next at MSNBC?

Rachel Maddow. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

Brian Williams announced Tuesday night that he is leaving his MSNBC show and NBC News entirely by year’s end. This news, while not totally shocking given the rumors that Williams was tired of doing a late-night show, throws some more uncertainty into MSNBC.

Already, MSNBC needs to plan ahead to fill Rachel Maddow’s very popular 9 p.m. Eastern slot. Maddow recently signed a contract extension with NBC News, but she is expected to step away from her nightly show for other projects. In addition, NBC News recently watched Kasie Hunt walk out the door to join CNN+. (Williams, by the way, could head there next.)

There’s more. Insider media writer Claire Atkinson reports that “Morning Joe” co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski have been “holding conversations about what’s next for them.” (Hmm, might they head to prime time?)

Whatever the case, fairly new president Rashida Jones has a lot to figure out in the coming weeks/months.

During a conversation Wednesday at the Paley International Council Summit with “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt, NBCUniversal News Group Chair Cesar Conde said, “Most probably saw the news that was put out (Tuesday) on Brian Williams and you know, we love Brian, and, we are so grateful for all of the incredible contributions that he’s made over the last few decades and we wish him the very, very best in this next chapter. But during those natural transitions, we have incredible opportunities that have opened up for the extraordinary deep bench of journalists that we have at the News Group.”

In case you missed it, here was Williams announcing his departure from NBC News on his MSNBC “11th Hour” show.

Update from Salt Lake

Good stuff here from Salt Lake Tribune executive editor Lauren Gustus, who writes, “From hedge fund ownership to nonprofit status: How we’re investing in 2022.”

To catch you up, Paul Huntsman brought the Tribune in 2016 from hedge fund Alden Global Capital. Since then, the Tribune became the only major metro newspaper to become a nonprofit, left a joint operating agreement and went from printing seven days a week to one.

Gustus wrote, “The Tribune newsroom is 23% larger than it was a year ago. We’ve welcomed a three-member Innovation Lab reporting team, a west Salt Lake Valley reporter and a second southern Utah reporter. We’ve also added to our digital team and our editing ranks. We’ve invested in long-overdue cameras and lenses for photographers, and provided a 401(k) match and parental leave for our employees.”

And more is coming. Gustus said the Tribune will add more journalists in 2022 and bolster “solutions-oriented journalism,” as well as adding to its business and education reporting, reimagining its food and culture journalism and investing in video. The Tribune also will add an e-edition on Sunday (to go along with a printed Sunday edition) and will add another day of print on Wednesdays, which will be delivered by mail.

Gustus wrote, “If you appreciate reading The Tribune, however, and want to support our future growth, we invite you to become a supporting subscriber and to make a tax-deductible donation. Journalism is so critical to the health of our communities that the freedom to practice it is enshrined in our Constitution. We are grateful you have stayed with us through many ups and downs. We are listening. And we are honored you have helped The Tribune reach sustainability.”

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
Tom Jones

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