From the Editor: This is off the record, but ...
You’ve seen it in the movies: The meeting late at night. The parking garage. The advice delivered in a cagey, gravelly voice: “Follow the money.
In real life, that was Deep Throat. He was an FBI big shot named Mark Felt, who helped unravel Watergate and became the most famous anonymous source in the checkered history of American journalism.
Anonymous sources are in the news again after Thursday’s publication of a New York Times op-ed purportedly from a senior Trump administration official. In the op-ed, the president comes off as an unstable un-genius.
My own thought about the piece was: How quaint.
In the small- and medium-sized towns where I’ve slogged away the last 40 years, papers stopped using anonymous sources years ago.
My first story with an AIDS victim was with a completely anonymous source who had moved back to Chaffee, Missouri, so his parents could take care of him. This was the 1980s, and his experience seemed likely to be important to readers who, by and large, didn’t know much about the disease. Revealing his identity to a small-town audience, especially his identity as a gay man, would have been downright cruel.
A lot of domestic abuse stories over the years have been based on anonymous interviews with women who were genuinely frightened for themselves and their children. People, especially women in the same situation, needed to hear their stories.
But you have to ask: How do people know I’m not another Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter who ripped off and made up material for his stories? Or Janet Cooke, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the Washington Post with a story about an entirely fictitious heroin addict?
When those stories about AIDS and domestic abuse were written, we wrote the stories and withheld the names. Working as a reporter in three different states, I’ve never known a colleague or a competitor to fabricate a source. Not even a little bit, not even once.
But now we either publish the names or don’t write the stories.
So there’s one set of rules for Washington, D.C., where anonymous sources are a common technique, and another set for Ricohoc.
If you’re curious about those other rules, here’s The Associated Press version:
—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.
—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.
Now you know the rules. But what if you’re interviewing someone who doesn’t know the rules?
In my experience, when people who don’t deal much with reporters say “off the record,” they really mean something closer to what the AP calls “background.” In other words, “You can use this but don’t use my name.”
One more frequent hiccup: You’ll do a whole interview, and maybe you think, “Geez, this is great,” and then at the end the source will say, “That’s off the record.”
If the source is say, a congressman or senator, or even a state legislator, there isn’t a reporter alive who will put up with a retroactive “off the record.” Those guys know the rules.
If it’s a civilian who just saw an auto accident, it’s another question. So you ask: “What would be the problem with using your name?”
On the other side, there’s nothing wrong with sources asking up front if they’re going to be quoted by name and what kind of story is being written.
Usually, something can be worked out.
That’s where Ricohoc rules have it all over those Washington rules. Up there, nothing ever seems to get worked out.
Bill Decker is the managing editor of The Daily Review.