What does “not authorized to comment publicly” also imply?
December 20, 2020 5:22 AM   Subscribe

What else does it mean when a journalist says their source was “not authorized to comment publicly”, besides the literal meaning of the words?

I just read an article in the Washington Post about the stimulus package. Within it is the sentence, “The compromise language was described by three congressional aides familiar with its drafting who were not authorized to comment publicly.” And yet the journalist got the information. From this phrasing, are we meant to understand that...
- it wasn’t okay for the news to get out, but someone shared it anyway because they thought the public should know, or
- it WAS okay to share, but not with attribution (yet), or
- something else?
posted by dywypi to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It means it wasn’t officially okay for the news to get out, but someone shared it anyway:

* The journalist reached out to the assistants who agreed to comment anonymously even though they had been told to decline all media enquiries, OR
* A congressperson who is pissed at what's going on instructed aids to leak to the press, OR
* A bunch of aids are pissed at what's going on and banded together to leak to the press.

Leaks are always unattributed because sources will lose their jobs if attributed.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:31 AM on December 20, 2020 [7 favorites]

Yeah, it's the first scenario you mention. If there's a situation where someone is officially allowed to talk but not allowed to be quoted by name, the story might paraphrase what they say and say it's "on background."
posted by pinochiette at 8:04 AM on December 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

And there is always the possibility someone is trying to sabotage someone else. The bases of each side rarely like to see their congresspeople horsetrading with the other side.
posted by Fukiyama at 9:14 AM on December 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

I would read this as "my boss probably doesn't mind this getting out, but they don't want to be attached to its dissemination."

Also "not authorized to comment publicly" may be an individual who's not "press trained" and an official source, but they know the information they are providing is not considered secret / somebody in the office wants it spread around.

At my company we have people who're press trained who are "official" sources, and then a lot of other people who come into contact with press. They may be approached by reporters they have relationships with who ask questions that they know are OK to answer, but not to have their name attached to the response.

Here's a good summary of the terms "on background," "not for attribution," as well as on and off the record.
posted by jzb at 9:25 AM on December 20, 2020 [10 favorites]

There is a whole weird ethics of sourcing that is poorly understood outside the journalism industry. If a reporter calls you up on the phone, identifies themself as a journalist, and asks you a question, by responding you have gone "on the record". You implicity agreed that they can print what you said and identify you by name as the source of the quote. I think most people would find that pretty intrusive, especially if the reporter is asking about something extremely sensitive, but that's the way it works. With prior negotiation, you can respond "off the record". That's when the journalist has assured themselves that 1) the person they are talking to is who they say they are and have access to the information, and 2) there is no realistic way to get someone to provide it on the record. The justification you're asking about is for the newspaper to show the public those things to the best of its ability without compromising the sources. jzb's guide is a good one, something with fewer illustrative tweets is Levels of Attribution.
posted by wnissen at 9:32 AM on December 20, 2020 [3 favorites]

Amplifying what pinochiette said, there are officially sanctioned briefings--often for many reporters--where the official doing the briefing is doing their job, but the rules are reporters can't use their name. So this is not that. Could be almost anything else.

In an extreme example, there are times things are leaked to the press because people at the top want to see the reaction without being attached to it, or it's a communication strategy to introduce an idea slowly, or something like that. Even this sort of thing could count as "not authorized." So you can't read much into the motivations based on that phrase.

A good and honest reporter should sense that's the situation and avoid the phrase in that case. But there have been mini-kerfuffles involving reporters using phrases like this to obscure source identity--ie, actively mislead the readers. It's a downside of a culture that is really big on cultivating sources.
posted by mark k at 9:36 AM on December 20, 2020 [1 favorite]

Two common scenarios that involve people not wanting to be attributed are the aforementioned "trial balloon" where the intent is to gauge public reaction or acclimatize us to the idea before it is made official and using such disclosures to alert people who they know will be vehemently opposed so that they can mobilize to derail the negotiation while it is still in progress so they don't have to take the heat from an actual vote.
posted by wierdo at 10:01 AM on December 20, 2020

It's worth noting that the standards for what's "on background" vs. "off the record" vs. "on the record" vary from publication to publication, which makes it frustrating for reporters AND for sources.

(source: Mrs. Thistledown is a working DC journalist)
posted by Thistledown at 11:40 AM on December 20, 2020 [2 favorites]

By the subject matter having to do with the Stimulus package, the source of the information has to have a specific job duty to talk to media journalists and make sure information that the public heard has been ok'd i.e. to not be too factual yet not false. Not authorized individuals are just members of the treasury department who dont have that specific title. Anyone who works for the treasury dept has to sign a clause that forbids interactions with the media unless given specific authorization.
posted by The_imp_inimpossible at 4:55 PM on December 20, 2020

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