Is this a breach of journalistic ethics?
March 17, 2016 11:13 AM   Subscribe

A few months ago an online article by an experienced journalist got some facts wrong about a project I'm working on. My client asked me to contact him and provide the pertinent facts, and offer an interview with the client. I am not an approved spokesperson for the company, and I made that clear to the journalist.

This is what I wrote: "I'm not approved by [redacted company name] to talk to you (or any member of the press) but I can give you non-attributable accurate background." Then I provided the information to correct the factual error and offered to put him in touch with the principal of the company for an interview and/or a quote. He never got back to me -- not even to thank me for reaching out.

Now, months later, that journalist has quoted me verbatim in a new piece, attributing it to a "consultant who reached out to him." I did not expect to be quoted, even anonymously, and there well could be blowback on me from my client over this.

Did I screw up in my wording — offering to provide "non-attributable accurate background" or did he cross a line? If I screwed up, how could I have better described my position and limitations?
posted by ljshapiro to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I am in public affairs. I advise my experts to never provide information to a reporter that they don't want to see attributed directly to them, as a precaution. A reporter is more likely to use your information unattributed and on background if you have a relationship with that reporter in some way, but not all reporters will use your information unattributed. You could reach out to the editor if the information isn't factually accurate, but you don't have a lot of recourse beyond that.
posted by answergrape at 11:24 AM on March 17, 2016 [12 favorites]

If the client asked you to reach out to the reporter and provide the facts, and you did that, and then the facts were printed/corrected, what's the problem?
posted by Mr. Big Business at 11:32 AM on March 17, 2016 [5 favorites]

I would suggest something like "I do not wish to be quoted even anonymously; my comments are entirely off the record." I think, to the reporter, your wording was a bit unclear.
posted by Occula at 11:36 AM on March 17, 2016

ljshapiro: "Did I screw up in my wording — offering to provide "non-attributable accurate background" or did he cross a line? If I screwed up, how could I have better described my position and limitations?"

My understanding is that things like this (e.g.: non-attributed background info, "off-the-record", etc...) are only in effect when the source and the journalist both agree to the terms. I.e.: a source doesn't get to unilaterally declare that something is off-the-record or anonymous or just for background or whatever. I think that this is something that many, many non-journalists (or, at least, non-media trained people) don't really know.

Where you screwed up is that you volunteered the information before getting agreement from the journalist that it would be provided as non-attributed background. You maybe could have stopped with "I can provide non-attributable background info and can hook you up with an interview, if you're interested."
posted by mhum at 11:39 AM on March 17, 2016 [14 favorites]

I am in journalism. Ethical standards very, but generally, you are "off the record" or "on background" only if the journalist agrees, and its best if you get that agreement ahead of time. Some journalists are more reasonable than that, some less so. It seems you wanted the journalist to print the correct information, in which case you would need to be willing to be identified. This journalist was cutting corners, at best, by quoting you anonymously, and was being lazy by not getting back to you.

From a strict ethical point of view, a journalist should not use a source who doesn't wish to be identified, unless there could be serious consequences for the source. This is to prevent the source from misleading the journalist's readers and this is the standard I'm held to at my small-time, podunk news outlet. Big-time hot-shot White House Press Corps types violate this standard all the time, and they shouldn't. As far as I'm concerned, it helps politicians and bureaucrats lie to the public.
posted by tommyD at 11:41 AM on March 17, 2016 [6 favorites]

My client asked me to contact him ... I'm not approved by [redacted company name] to talk to you

Unless I'm misunderstanding what happened, you were acting on behalf of the company, even if it wasn't authorized to the top. One doesn't have to be an authorized spokesperson for a company to be quoted or quotable.

Someone reaching out the a journalist and saying they're not doing something on behalf of the company, but then giving a data dump and offering to put them in contact with someone at the company may have smelled funny. I wouldn't say it was a miscategorization to call you a consultant in this case, if anything, your description of yourself sounds suspect.

An agreement is something made between two people - saying, "don't quote me on this," when you reach out to someone you have no prior contact with is not necessarily binding on them.
posted by Candleman at 12:02 PM on March 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

"but I can give you non-attributable accurate background."

What did you mean by this? To me this reads like "you can basically quote what I say as long as you don't attribute it to me."
posted by I-baLL at 12:06 PM on March 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

From the NYU journalism handbook:
"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.
So, no, it sounds like he did things more or less by the book. Also, you need to have a two-way agreement that something is "Not for attribution" before providing the information in the first place. Which you didn't, so I'd say you were lucky on that front.
posted by 256 at 12:10 PM on March 17, 2016 [15 favorites]

Best answer: I think this is kind of an edge case. Even "on background," you and the writer should have come to some kind of agreement over attribution. If it were me, I would have shot you a quick email reading, "OK if I call you 'a consultant who reached out to [my publication]'?" and waited for your response before publishing. If I were on a tight deadline for whatever reason I might be tempted to go ahead and quote you as "a consultant," figuring it was pretty much accurate by definition and couldn't be traced back to you, but I'd be conflicted. If you had made it a little more clear -- "please do not quote me, even anonymously, as I am not authorized to speak on behalf of my client and my job may be at stake" -- I would have been a little annoyed at having to go through you to get an actual spokesperson to comment, but I wouldn't have quoted you, even anonymously.

Really, though, this is the fault of your client, who put you in a rough spot -- basically asking you to speak for the company while simultaneously insisting that you can't speak for the company. If they didn't want you to be speaking on behalf of the company for attribution they had no business putting you in that position. They should have had PR make the contact (since it's their job to know how all this stuff works) or an actual company spokesperson should have sent the reporter an email saying, "You got this wrong. Give me a call and I'll tell you what's really going on." That said, if you provide your client that original email to the reporter, I think they'd be hard-pressed to blame you for what happened. Good luck!
posted by Mothlight at 12:48 PM on March 17, 2016 [5 favorites]

"I'm not approved by [redacted company name] to talk to you (or any member of the press) but I can give you non-attributable accurate background.

I am a designated spokesperson for my organization, and this is exactly the sort of reason we are advised in our media training to never to treat any communication with a journalist as "off-the-record" even with some "agreement". These "agreements" are all verbal and utterly non-enforceable. It would require a really extraordinary level of trust for this to be taken at face value. Remember, reporters are always looking for the best angle on a story.

Sorry, "off the record" is a game for the folks in fancy leather shoes. As a non-CEO level (or non-political level in the case of government), official statements only is how you should communicate with the press.

Did I screw up in my wording — offering to provide "non-attributable accurate background" or did he cross a line? If I screwed up, how could I have better described my position and limitations?

IMO, you should have never have communicated with the journalist if you wanted to be off the record, as you can't reliably guarantee that any reporter will do that ever. Even reaching out "off the record" is ethically challenging for you. There are no laws about this, it's all ethical standards and professional practices, some reporters have them, some don't, and some are negotiable.

All you can do in this case is take your lumps, learn and and move on. The reporter broke no rules and could perhaps even argue that they were acting in the public interest.
posted by bonehead at 1:52 PM on March 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've had two encounters with journalists where I wanted to retain my privacy and in both case I feel like they screwed me over and it wasn't done accidentally. Unless you are professionally experienced in dealing with the press I think the lesson here is to never trust a journalist with your private information. Ever. It's like not talking to the cops or something.

If you have to talk to a journalist be as super paranoid as possible. And then get advice from actual paranoids on how to deal with them. And even then make sure you will be ok if they screw you over. Because they will.
posted by bfootdav at 3:25 PM on March 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

1. My client asked me to contact him and provide the pertinent facts

2. I am not an approved spokesperson for the company

I think there was an ethical lapse here, but it was the client, not the journalist, who lapsed. If the client, knowing that you are not an approved spokesperson, asked you to contact the journalist, the client was in the wrong.
posted by Bruce H. at 4:29 PM on March 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

1. A better approach would have been to reach out, say you wished to provide some info off the record, and if the reporter agreed, then provide it. But simply sending an email to him with the info pretty much waived any need for him to provide anonymity.

2. Its piss poor journalistic standards to use anonymous sources, except in cases where anonymity is required to actually protect a source AND when the information can be confirmed (either by a second source, or the original source has a track record of being accurate) AND when the reporter will cite the need for anonymity. Unfortunately, this standard is frequently dismissed.

3. In your case, you had no real need for anonymity, and that your employer was asking you to reach out pretty much nullified any reason why the reporter should have provided it. This is a case example of why not to provide anonymity.
posted by Unsomnambulist at 2:13 AM on March 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

So you're saying the client approved you to be spokesman by tasking you with talking to the press, but then asked you to tell the press you aren't an approved spokesman? The client was wrong to even put you in that awkward position.

Longtime journalist here (not lately, though.) I would have called you to clarify that weird scenario.
posted by emelenjr at 3:47 AM on March 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

I read it as OP works for Company A, but is not an authorized spokesperson for Company A. The client is an individual or Company B who buys services from Company A.
posted by Bruce H. at 6:42 AM on March 18, 2016

Well, he didn't attribute it to you directly, so, while borderline on his part, the journalist held to your request. He didn't name you, but he wanted it to have some level of 'legitimacy' so he said where he got the info.

Now, did he use it factually, or twist it in a way?

I *am* an approved spokesperson and I know some journalists are just out to stir up readership with saucy stories, and others are good at representing all sides factually. And then a bunch in the middle.

So, always be careful. If you don't know the journalist, I would first approach and say something like "In reference to article x, I have some first hand knowledge and would appreciate the opportunity to discuss with you. "

See, providing the detail, and saying he can't attribute it to you, and if he needed clarity, the client would be happy to speak says;
"Here's some info. You can't use my name. But if you want to verify it, you can talk to Client. But, well, you don't have to if you don't want to."

Technically, you didn't do anything wrong.. your client probably isn't experienced with journalists, either.. but the journalist really should come back to you.
posted by rich at 7:19 AM on March 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Working journalist here, I don't see the problem as your name was not used, although many outlets would have refused to use an anonymous source. I find it shady myself unless the person is a crime victim or something. I might have called the PR folks to confirm the information depending on what it is.
Perhaps the person should have called back, but if it was a middling point in a longer story (hard to tell here), it might not been thought important enough to. However, your client shouldn't have told you to call the reporter if you're not the spokesperson. It's the client's fault, not yours.
posted by greatalleycat at 10:12 PM on March 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

« Older Japanese Shopping Spree   |   Mixed-Meowdia Art Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.