1958: Attribution of News
Memo to All Hands
[This article originally appeared in the July 1958 issue of Nieman Reports.]
One of the most vexing of all problems of the news is the story that, for one or another reason, cannot be attributed to its source. After long wrestling with this puzzler, the Managing Editor of The Washington Post gathered himself together one day and got off this policy statement to all his staff.
Some questions have arisen recently about the various conventions about attribution of news and our policy on them. The following summary is in explanation.
Direct attribution is the best way of handling news and information about an event or conditions or situations of which we do not have direct, eyewitness knowledge ourselves. This is always the best way, inasmuch as it provides the reader with a knowledge of the source, enabling him to evaluate its credibility for himself. It involves no pretense of having direct knowledge which we do not have. It avoids the risk of having the newspapers used to disseminate material for which the author is unwilling to take public responsibility.
However, when sources will not allow attribution, or will not talk if there is attribution, we are driven, along with others, to move from the best way of presenting the news of which we are not the witness to second-best ways.
These methods, because they lack the virtue of complete candor and do not have the advantage of straightforward processes, get newspaper people into a great many misunderstandings. They are, in many cases, a means by which officials seek to evade responsibility for knowledge and information for which they should be willing to assume responsibility. In many cases, citizens have a right to know, not only the information, but the source of it.
Still, we do not make the circumstances under which some information is available. They exist. We have to live with them. It is the purpose of this memorandum to make it more convenient to live with them and to minimize the possibilities of misunderstanding between the newspapers and our colleagues and our sources.
1. Off-the-record. In a small gathering, or an interview, if a news source asks to put the remarks he is about to make off-the-record, the reporter has the choice of agreeing or of asking the news source not to make the intended comments at all, in order to remain free to seek the story elsewhere.
If the reporter agrees to the off-the-record basis, he must then hold the disclosure in absolute confidence. He may not use it in anything he writes, even without attribution to the source, however guarded. A violation of a confidence of this kind is considered, and properly, a cardinal newspaper sin.
He may, unless forbidden by the original source, seek out the same information from another source, but without in any way indicating that he already has heard the news, or is in possession of it, from someone else.
If he accepts the off-the-record condition as to the information itself, he usually may use it upon its public disclosure somewhere else, but in all such cases where a question may arise about a breach of confidence, the reporter should act only after discussion of the matter with his editors and the appropriate desk.
An even more difficult problem arises with respect to disclosure of the source when that source has been publicly identified elsewhere. Again, the proper course is to bring the matter to the attention of the desk and the editors, who will determine what can be published and whether prior clearance with the source is called for.
The reporter will choose the other course (asking the source not to mention the subject if he can do so only off-the-record) when he believes that he has an opportunity to find out about the matter in some other way and does not, therefore, wish any conditions hanging over him or limiting his future inquiry.
In a public meeting or gathering, open to all without specific invitation, any attempt by a speaker to put all or part of his remarks off-the-record may be firmly and blandly ignored as an absurdity.
In a large gathering—say 20 persons or more—but sponsored by a private organization, club, committee or the like, where the reporter is present in his role as a reporter but also as an invited guest, he must protest vigorously any attempt by a speaker to go off-the-record. He should point out that the meeting was scheduled as open to the press, that any attempt at secrecy with a group that large is manifestly meaningless, ineffective, nonsensical, etc. If the speaker persists, and insists that his remarks be off-the-record, the reporter must leave the meeting at that point, complaining as loudly as he can, and report the matter to the editors of the appropriate desk. They will decide whether and how the event should be reported, and what sort of a protest should be made.
1a. Phony off-the-record. Many persons new to Washington or to contacts with the press may say they are speaking off-the-record, having heard the phrase but misunderstanding it, and intending only to mean “for background only” (see number two below). The reporter’s objection may then serve to clarify the situation and put the story on a usable basis. Make sure you and the source are clear on the meaning of his injunction and its limitations.
2. For background only. This convention, also known as “Without attribution,” “The Lindley Rule,” “The Rule of Compulsory Plagiarism,” or simply as “Don’t quote me,” is a common one and is used—or should be—when a person of considerable importance or delicate position is discussing a matter in circumstances in which his name cannot be used for reasons of public policy or personal vulnerability. It is often abused by persons who want to sink a knife or do a job without risking their own position or facing the consequences to themselves.
Obviously, it is much better to obtain a story in circumstances which permit the identification of the source. In certain types of stories, particularly those arising on the police and court beats, it is often not possible to report the event at all without attribution. In some cases, attribution is needed as a matter of fair play to the other side of the controversy, or sometimes attribution may be needed to pin responsibility for potentially libelous statements where it belongs. In some cases, however, the “background only” procedure is legitimate and provides an honest, worthwhile story which could not be obtained in any other way.
In such cases the reporter may not, of course, identify the source and may not hint, imply or suggest his identity. In some cases, the source may insist that no attribution be given even to the agency or organization of the source, forbidding the reporter even to indulge in such vague attribution as “State Department sources,” or “Internal Revenue Service officials,” and the like.
In all such circumstances, the reporter is on dangerous ground. He must take pains to establish clearly and without any ambiguity in his own or the source’s mind exactly what the conditions are, and must tell the appropriate desk the circumstances of the story, following instructions from the desk, as if on his own cognizance, or with whatever kind of attribution has been allowed.
In all, the reporter must remember that a violation of confidence is accomplished just as surely by disclosure of the news and/or the source to an authorized person as it is by printing it in the paper. He breaches the confidence he has undertaken by telling someone who was not included in the original session who the source was and what transpired.
He has the right to, and should, inform his desk and editors of the event and the source, but making clear what the conditions were; if he writes a memorandum to his editors on the session he must precede it by a clear and obvious caveat about the circumstances under which the information was obtained.
For a reporter to give the story and/ or source to another person who was not invited to the session is not merely a breach of his commitment, it is often a sure way to guarantee that he himself will be scooped; the other person, not bound by the original conditions or not understanding them, may blithely proceed to publish the account. The reporter who disclosed the matter to another cannot console himself in the thought that the second man may have acted unethically; the fact remains that he committed the initial breach of confidence himself.
If a story obtained on an off-the-record or background-only basis is published elsewhere with a disclosure of the source, the reporter who agreed to the terms in the first place must seek guidance from his conscience, his editors and, if possible, from the original source.
The ugliest and most lasting quarrels between the press and the news sources in Washington over the last 30 years have come from deliberate or, most usually, unwitting misunderstandings of the ground rules in situations of this kind.
3. Not for direct quotation. This convention, fortunately now rare, is tailor-made for confusion. When someone speaks but asks, “Don’t quote me directly,” take infinite pains to make sure exactly what he means.
The custom came into being with press conferences of the President and the Secretary of State some years ago. It meant that the speaker’s remarks could be fully and clearly attributed, but that his words must be paraphrased rather than used literally inside quotation marks. Thus a reporter could write, “The President said he felt fine and would go to New York next week,” but not, “The President said, ‘I feel fine and shall go to New York next week.’”
The purpose, if any, was to spare the speaker the cold printing of the solecisms common in conversational remarks.
Now, with televised White House press conferences and a transcript made of the Secretary of State’s conferences, the injunction is rarely used. Occasionally, a speaker whose native tongue is not English may ask to be spared the risible consequences of direct quotation. In such cases, common politeness indicates compliance with the request.
But make abundantly clear whenever someone says “Don’t quote me directly” that he means what he appears to say. Ninety-nine times out of 100 he means, in reality, “background only.”
4. Hold for release. Statements, speeches, handouts, reports, etc. are often embargoed for publication until a certain time, with the provision expressed on the document. Ordinarily, there is no room for ambiguity; if there is, check with the appropriate desk, or the issuing agency.
Occasionally, in an interview in which several reporters participate, they may agree by common consent among themselves and the news source not to use the information until a certain time. Such bargains must be kept. Make sure that you understand the terms exactly and that all of those present do, too, lest you be double-crossed inadvertently or otherwise. The reporter who sees brewing a proposal to embargo the information after a news session and ducks out deliberately in order to steal a march and contend that he knew nothing of the latter agreement, will not last long or do his paper and himself any credit. If he does not like the terms of the embargo, he can object and his sole objection prevents the deal, for this is a case where reporters are morally bound only by unanimous consent.
If a release is broken, accidentally or by design, it is customarily a sign for general release by all. But in all cases, check first with the appropriate desk.
5. Private gatherings. Reporters, if they are worth their salt, will pick up much information from conversations at parties, private visits, and social gatherings. There is a real problem on what use may be made of the information so received. No flat and general rules about procedure can be made to take care of all cases of this kind.
Basically, however, the reporter’s own sense of what is fit and morally proper will be the best guide. If the reporter is at a private gathering because of his person and not because of his position and profession, politeness and decent social relations indicate that he must specifically ask the person who discloses the information whether it may be published and under what conditions. He may choose to do it on the spot, or to call on the source at a later time, operating without ambiguity as a reporter, and not as a social contact.
If the reporter has been invited to the gathering in his role of a reporter, and if he is told something by someone who knows he is a reporter and is working at it at the moment, he may ordinarily write what he learns.
In all circumstances, and whatever the conventions, stated or implied, remember that a cheap beat, won by cutting a corner, by a technicality, or by violating the spirit if not the letter of the understanding of the news source and of other newsmen, is empty, usually worthless, and is followed by penalties and regrets far heavier and longer enduring than any momentary gains that are obtained.
Conduct yourself so that you can look your source in the eye the next day.
Alfred Friendly is Managing Editor of The Washington Post.