Off the record vs. On background vs. Privacy

July 7th, 2010

Earlier today, New York Times reporter Nick Bilton posted this tweet:

Off record chat w/ Facebook employee. Me: How does Zuck feel about privacy? Response: [laughter] He doesn't believe in it.

This tweet reminds me of a poster I once saw in college showing, from one perspective, a beauty queen and from another, an old-maid. Why? Well, this tweet shows how reporters can be cavalier with their sources (the "off the record" vs "on background" debate), and the content by the source that Facebook, by the Zuckerberg proxy, doesn't believe in privacy.

But first, a few definitions of "off the record" and "on background":

From Wikipedia:

Off-the-record": the information is provided to inform a decision or provide a confidential explanation, not for publication.

"On background" (Canadian Association of Journalists). The thrust of the briefing may be reported (and the source characterized in general terms as above) but direct quotes may not be used.

From the NYU Journalism Handbook for Students

"On background" is a kind of limited license to print what the source gives you without using the source's name. But most veteran reporters will not use "on background" information until they can verify it with other sources. People try to go "on background" when their information is very sensitive, which is to say, the information is likely to cause a stir. "On background" means the source's name does not appear in the story. In effect it confers anonymity on your source, but allows you to work with the information the source has provided. Again, it's best to consult your professor in these situations.

"Off the record" restricts the reporter from using the information the source is about to deliver. The information is offered to explain or further a reporter's understanding of a particular issue or event. (Various presidents have invited reporters to have dinner with the understanding that no information from this meeting can ever be published.) But if the reporter can confirm the information with another source who doesn't insist on speaking off the record (whether that means he agreed to talking on the record, on background, or not for attribution) he can publish it.

Most telling, however, is this paragraph from the NYU Handbook:

The problem with the phrase "off the record" is that many people, reporters and the general public alike, misunderstand its precise meaning. These days many interviewees think "off the record" is largely synonymous with "on background" or "not for attribution." There is so much murkiness about what "off the record" means that it is essential that the reporter and source agree on a definition before beginning an "off the record" portion of an interview. In the Department of Journalism, "off the record" means the information should not be used in the story unless the reporter can confirm it through another source. In general, it is best to avoid off the record conversations; another option might be to converse off the record and then try to convince the source to agree to waive the agreement.

I tried to find the New York Times' policy on differentiating between "on background" and "off the record," but couldn't find anything. Perhaps the best thing I found was from a 1994 article by the American Journalism Review quoting George Freeman, New York Times attorney:

"Yes, there are (differences between on background and off the record), but I've never quite figured them out. I tell reporters if they really want the source to understand, make it clear. But those words generally cause more confusion than anything else." 

So, what's the lesson learned in all this? Hire a communications firm. Sorry, couldn't pass that one up. But the real lesson is, if you are speaking with a member of the media - or anyone these days, as we're all journalists now with the Twitter and the Facebook and the Blogs - make sure your comments/messages are appropriate and not something that can start fires. 

And for the record, Bilton tweeted:

For the record: My source said it was OK to quote them, just not say who they are. (I ALWAYS discuss attribution in interviews.)

So the second issue with this seemingly innocuous tweet is the Facebook source discussing Zuckerberg's views of privacy - or should I say, lack of privacy. As Facebook strides closer and closer to Internet domination, this off the record, on background comment is disturbing. Many in the tech world already believe the company is pure evil, and when a Facebook source says that the CEO doesn't believe in it, flags should be raised.

The Internet, for so many years, has been referred to as the wild west and we're now watching the colonization of it unfold right before our eyes. Rules, regulations, societies - hell, even farms - have been setup to safeguard online denizens from shady spam-toting characters. But when a site that has global domination in its sights with 500 million users connected through a series of tricky, if not sticky, web applications is determined to bypass this colonization process and start its own ecosystem, the rest of us need to be vigilant about our data.

And as Wendy Davis of MediaPost writes:

But whether Zuckerberg respects users' privacy or not, he operates in a country where the law -- at least to some extent -- protects consumers' data.