Two questions about journalism and anonymous/off-the-record comments

  1. When a politician says he or she wants to make some comment ‘off the record,’ and the media agrees it’ll be ‘off the record’, and then he or she says something blatantly racist or sexist or otherwise offensive, is there any professional or ethical reason why the media wouldn’t publish it?

  2. What prevents the media from fabricating a fake source and disguising it as, *“Senior official in the government commented on condition of anonymity?” *

Well, politicians talk to each other, and any journalist who quotes comments made off the record will soon find that other politicians won’t give them any comments at all, on or off the record. But if the comment is a real corker, they might decide “What the hell, it’s worth it!”

Nothing, really. But off-the-record quotes will not stand up if a story becomes contentious, so you wouldn’t fabricate a big or important comment. Editors and/or lawyers would want to see the source in confidence, so you’d better have evidence.

But for minor/silly stories, you can bet that “A source close to person X” is sometimes the journalist themselves or one of their colleagues.

  1. Journalists go to great lengths to not divulge their sources, because this hurts the reporter and their organization’s reputations, such that future sources may not be willing to risk sharing and getting betrayed. Imagine if Wikileaks revealed a source out of spite – nobody would risk giving them information again. An example of this in the aftermath of the Iraq War was Judith Miller going to prison to protect a source.

  2. Nothing except reputation. See Jayson Blair, a NY Times reporter who faked a bunch of sources to become one of their star reporters – until someone found out and the Times had to issue a front-page apology.

Trust. The media is trusted, by both the public and the sources, to be honorable. A reporter or media outlet depends on this trust for its livelihood, and violation of that trust could mean the end of credibility.

Oops, sorry for accidentally bunching those sentences together.

To be clear, Judith Miller went to jail for refusing to name her source. It had nothing to do with Wikileaks.

Former journalist here, of the political sort. Worked in publishing for a long time and even owned a couple of newspapers for several years.

In general, ‘off the record’ means that it can’t be used at all in print. Not even as an unnamed source. It MAY be used to chase down other leads on the story but the person who gave the info off the record may not be named. People WANT to share what they know…but they don’t always want to be the one known for giving up the info.

A further variation is ‘on background’ or ‘on deep background’. Either means that the information may be used but may not be attributed. A source is giving you some information about a story that is usable but not quotable. The difference between ‘background’ and ‘deep background’ can be subtle but important. Regular background can be, “A highly placed source says…” while deep background can’t even hint at where the info comes from.

And no, there’s no reason to ever break the rules except in the imminent commission of a serious crime or danger to others. Even then, a reporter should touch base with his or her editor to make clear what the situation has become.

Also, every editor should know each source regardless of the source’s status. Ben Bradlee knew who Deep Throat was. It’s the way the editor can make a judgment call about whether a story should run or not. A reporter can’t go to his editor and say, “I can’t tell you the source, but trust me.” Or shouldn’t at least. Such things should earn a hearty, ‘go cover a flower show until you grow up’ from an editor.

Nothing. But there is a feedback loop in place. If a reporter and editor are both unethical enough to make stuff up and not care other reporters will start chasing the story to confirm. So if a newspaper says, “Senior officials say that Senator Hird-Jones is a racist” others are going to go crazy trying to confirm it and who’s talking. When they can’t, they’ll start asking where the initial story came from and the reporter and editor may end up in deep trouble.

I don’t know how it is in your country, but over here, the idea of an honourable journalist would be greeted with derision. They get up to all kinds of skulduggery to get their stories, and if all else fails, they just make it up. Journalists are down there with politicians and estate agents.

If you ever read a newspaper story about something about which you have first-hand knowledge, you will nearly always be astounded at the inaccuracies.

I always remember the point made by Chris Matthews in “Hardball”. Basically that “off the record” only ever goes so far. There will always be a point where a journalist - and by implication their editor, decide that the information divulged outweighs the value of the “off the record” agreement. And the loss of that conduit of information evermore.
He points out that a politician saying something “off the record” is usually doing so for their own benefit as well as for the journalist. Leaking politically sensitive information - often to white ant a rival - is a typical one. But what is said may go past this into areas that are not reasonably protected by any agreement. Chris wrote that outright racism was one such area. However this book is what? 30 years old. Things do change, but I suspect not that much.