Establishing the Ground Rules With a Reporter

When reporters get a lead on a story, it is their job to talk with multiple sources, to gather facts and opinions, in order to analyze whether the story is worth pursing.

Before beginning an interview, its important to establish an agreement to determine how the information will be used and sourced, such as off the record, on the record, on background, or deep background. This agreement needs to occur at the beginning, not the end of the interview. You can’t begin an interview and then say, “Wait, that was ‘off the record.’”

Here is a brief summary of some ground rules when talking with a reporter:

“Off the Record” means the information can’t be quoted, referenced or used in an article. The information is offered to provide the reporter with a greater understanding of the issue.

“On the Record” means the information you provide can be used or quoted for the story. This includes using you or your client as the source of the information.

“On Background” means that the information can be used by the reporter, but not attributed to you. They can refer to you as “an expert” or “government official” or “a senior executive.” This type of agreement usually occurs when the information is sensitive, so the source is not disclosed.

“On Deep Background” means that the information can be used in a story or to enhance the reporter’s knowledge of the subject or as a guide for other leads, but the original source cannot be quoted or identified. Here is how Associated Press defines it: “The information can be used but without attribution. The source does not want to be identified in any way, even on condition of anonymity.” http://www.ap.org/company/News-Values

Before sitting down for the interview, write down what you want to say. Don’t ad-lib.

Set the ground rules for the interview.

Treat everything you say, even if you are “off the record,” as though you are “on the record.”

Remember a reporter will be talking to multiple sources and some key word or phrase you provide can open the door to another source, who might be willing to go “on the record.”

** Update:

A colleague and communications professional, Alicia Trost brought up a good point, these rules also apply when text messaging. Thank you @AliciaTrost

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