Human Sources

A human “source” is roughly defined as a person who contributes information to a piece of reportage, whether or not it is ultimately published or aired in any venue — print, the Internet, radio (audio podcasts included), video on a news report on television, the Web or in a documentary film.

Journalists should seek to be fair and truthful in reporting what their sources tell them. Factual accuracy entails checking, and double-checking, facts and fairness involves working diligently to get myriad sides of a story by speaking to multiple sources with different and often varying points of view. When appropriate, journalists should make a judicious attempt to balance “establishment” experts — spokespeople for think tanks, foundations, and the like — with knowledgeable sources from outside “official” culture. Fairness also means adhering to the “no surprises” rule when writing critically of someone: affording the source the opportunity to answer allegations or criticisms before publishing the work.

In addition, journalists should avoid engaging in stereotypes and, whenever possible and appropriate, make sure that people from different economic backgrounds, ethnic groups, religions and cultures are represented in the reporting. The NYU Journalism Department faculty urges students to treat sources with respect. Never threaten punitive action against a source for a perceived lack of cooperation.

On the record, on background, not for attribution and off the record: These are prearranged agreements between a reporter and a source, which govern how specific information can be used. These deals must be agreed to beforehand, never after. A source can’t say something then claim it was “off the record.” That’s too late. When dealing with individuals who are not experienced in talking with reporters, journalists should make sure ground rules and potential consequences are clear, and then perhaps offer leeway. Of course, if the information isn’t integral to the story, a reporter can agree not to use it. If you talk to five journalists, you’ll likely get five different definitions for these terms. That’s why it’s important that a reporter clarify the use of these terms with a source before making any agreements.

In general:

“On the record” means anything the source says can be reported, published, or aired. All conversations are assumed to be on the record unless the source expressly requests — and the reporter explicitly agrees — to go off the record beforehand. If the reporter agrees to change “on the record” to something else, the reporter should be sure to mark notes clearly so that it’s possible to see what’s on the record and what is not at a later date. Never rely on memory and always try to get back “on the record” as quickly as possible.

“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.

“Not for attribution” means that a reporter agrees not to identify a source by name. Identification is provided only by reference to the source’s job or position. That identification must be agreed upon by the reporter and the source, and is almost always given in a way that prevents readers from discovering the source’s specific identity. (There are rare exceptions — when dealing with diplomats and expressing a nation’s official views, for instance.) The reporter should make sure the attribution is accurate and should press the source to allow the attribution to be as specific as possible. For example, a reporter would want to attribute information to “a high-ranking official in the Justice Department,” rather than “a high-ranking law enforcement official,” if the source agrees beforehand.

“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.

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.

Anonymity: The faculty urges students to avoid using unidentified sources whenever possible. In recent years, The New York Times, to name one media outlet, has come under fire for reporting stories largely based on anonymous government sources promulgating a particular point of view, and this practice undermined the Times’ goal of covering news impartially — “without fear or favor,” in the words of its patriarch, Adolph Ochs. For instance, the paper’s coverage of Los Alamos researcher Wen Ho Lee, who Clinton Administration officials pegged as a spy by using cover of anonymity to leak their suspicions to Times reporters, and its coverage of Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction leading up to the Iraq War, seriously tainted the paper’s reputation.

There are moments, however, when the only way to get a story is to offer anonymity to a source; such offers should be a last resort after repeated attempts to go on the record have failed and the student has received permission from his instructor. Some notable examples: a source admits committing a crime, and publishing his name could land him in prison; a source begs anonymity because public exposure could embarrass the source or jeopardize the source’s job; an illegal immigrant is afraid to speak out for fear of being deported. In these cases, the student should consult with his professor. If an anonymous source must be used, the student should attempt to offer as much detail as possible about who the source was and explain the reason anonymity was given. For instance, identify a source as “a police detective close to the investigation who requested anonymity because her superiors had ordered her not to speak publicly on the matter.”

Except in rare instances, a reporter should not publish an anonymous quote or statement from a source that is critical of another person. Generally speaking, if someone is unwilling to put his name to a critical statement about another person, the reporter shouldn’t use it. In all cases where a source requests anonymity, the reporter must get the source’s name and address and contact numbers and that information must be made available to the professor, who, in effect, serves as the student’s editor.

In-person, phone, e-mail, and instant message interviews: It is best to speak to sources in person. In-person interviews allow for colorful, descriptive reporting. Sources also tend to be much more relaxed — and perhaps more truthful — when interviewed in person. It’s also much easier for a reporter to gauge the credibility of a source when meeting face to face. But an in-person interview is not always practicable, and in those cases the telephone is the next best mode of communication. Be sure to check the veracity of a source’s identity by calling through corporate or government switchboards, and be suspicious if a source will only call you and will not provide either a phone number or an affiliation.

E-mail interviews can have their place. In certain circles — technology or in the blog world, for instance — many sources insist on e-mail interviews so they have a written record of what is discussed. In addition, e-mail interviews can serve as an effective way to further clarify information from a prior in-person or phone interview, especially if data and highly technical information is being conveyed. But e-mail interviews can create problems, too. How does a reporter know the person replying is who he says he is? All too often company publicists answer e-mail questions on behalf of their bosses or clients. E-mail answers often tend to be carefully scripted and thus not truly representative of what the source truly thinks. Spontaneous answers in conversation are often more truthful. Follow-up questions — usually the most productive questions in a probing interview — are also very difficult and time-consuming to ask via e-mail. Likewise, instant message interviews should not be used to replace in-person or telephone interviews, but at times can be useful in clarifying responses.

NYU Journalism faculty strongly urge student reporters to meet sources in person whenever possible. It makes for richer, better stories; the writer can describe physical settings — what a source’s office looks like, for example.

Person on-the-street interviews: When interviewing people on the street — tourists, passersby, voters exiting a polling precinct — be sure to get proper contact information (telephone number is best; e-mail less so) in the event an editor needs to confirm quotes or facts, check a source’s identity, or simply wants the reporter to ask follow up questions. Often the purpose of on-the-street interviews is to try to capture the diversity of opinion in a particular population, not just to get a few lively quotes to brighten a story. In this case, a reporter should make an effort to interview enough people so that he can feel reasonably confident the story holds a fair cross-section of opinion. Better still, she should back up her interviews with statistically legitimate polling data if available. And reporters should always be honest with their readers about the number of sources interviewed. Don’t leave readers with the impression that your story accurately reflects campus opinion if you have only interviewed half-a-dozen people. Instead, tell readers how many people you interviewed, and attempt to quantify their views.

Obligations to sources: It is imperative that journalists honor their agreements with sources; some have taken great risks in providing information. If you agree to a source’s request for anonymity be sure you don’t inadvertently provide information in your story that could peg him as the source. Such deals should never be undertaken lightly. Reporters must carefully consider whether to guarantee anonymity to a source, especially involving a matter that could eventually go to court. Refusing to name a source in a legal proceeding could land a reporter in jail. (The legal ramifications raised by the need to protect sources is discussed in the section on law, below.)

Taping conversations: There are obvious benefits to recording interviews, namely an assurance of accuracy and the creation of a verifiable record. Although the laws of certain states allow professional reporters to tape conversations without getting the permission of the interviewee beforehand, some states don’t. The Department of Journalism at NYU suggests that students first ask permission before taping any conversation to head off any potential legal entanglements. Begin the taping by stating the date, time and asking the person to spell his or her name, which then offers proof the subject agreed to the taping.

In very rare instances, secret taping may be warranted. Reporters at the Lexington Herald-Leader won a Pulitzer in 1986 for their series, “Playing Above the Rules,” in which they secretly taped interviews with University of Kentucky basketball players, who told them a group of fans had violated NCAA rules by giving players cash and gifts. The reporters and editors were worried that sources would recant their stories under pressure, opening up the publication to potential litigation. If you believe secret taping is required to get the story, you must first seek your professor’s permission.

What follows is more detail on this topic:

I.) Taping (face to face): There are 37 states, plus the District of Columbia, that permit surreptitious recording of interviews. These are called one-party consent states, since only one party to the conversation — the reporter, for example — need give consent. (It is not, of course, legal to tape a conversation to which you are not a participant — by planting a bug or tapping a phone, for example.) On the other hand, 12 states have criminal statutes that prohibit recording without the consent of all parties to the conversation: California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Washington (Vermont has no law). Note that these are criminal statutes, the violation of which can bring a jail sentence, and these laws have been interpreted in various ways by the courts of each state.

II.) Taping over telephone: The same twelve states require consent of all parties in order to record a telephone conversation. Federal law permits the recording of phone conversations if one party consents and has been expanded to include wireless and cellular calls. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations conflict with federal statutory law — the FCC requires, for calls crossing state lines, that all parties be notified of the recording at the beginning of the call.

III.) Use of cameras without consent: Thirteen states forbid unauthorized use of cameras in private places: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, South Dakota, and Utah.

Reporting/videotaping post 9/11: Although there is no law against videotaping a subway platform or police cars on patrol that doesn’t mean you won’t get hassled by law enforcement officials, who, after Sept. 11, have a heightened concern about terrorism. The City has even posted signs prohibiting photography on its bridges and tunnels. Although reporters may see a story in testing for security vulnerabilities, this can be particularly risky. The research would probably require a certain amount of subterfuge and may well involve a violation of criminal law. You can expect to be prosecuted, for example, if you test airport security by trying to smuggle a box cutter onboard a passenger jet. In addition, there are laws on the books that prohibit videotaping military installations and nuclear power plants.

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