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What Does ‘Off the Record’ Really Mean? (nytimes.com)
126 points by js2 8 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 92 comments

I won't talk to journalists anymore. It never goes well. Even when I'm talking to a supposedly "friendly" journalist, they will cherry pick my words or "summarize the source" to fit their narrative, even if the meaning is the opposite of what I said.

Journalists have a rule that they won't show their articles to sources before publication. I understand why that rule is necessary for adversarial sources, like when you're reporting a negative story on something a politician said. You don't want them to scoop you or try to change the narrative before your article gets out.

But when you contact me asking me to explain a technical topic in detail because you don't understand it, why in the world would you not want to show me the article before publication, so that I can make sure you properly captured the nuance? Instead, they quote sentence one of two, where number two has important nuance to it, or they summarize the two sentences inaccurately, and then attach my name to it, making me look uniformed. Then I have to hop on the comments and defend myself, making me look bad and the journalist.

In a world where sources can put comments on an article right next to an article, they really need to update their rules to differentiate between friendly and adversarial sources.

I once had a telephone interview with a journalist. I made some silly remark, followed with "don't print that".

Both the remark and the "don't print that" were printed in the article.

Generally, the journalist does not owe you to follow you instructions, just as any other person. They might do it if they want to be nice, or cooperative with you, or like you, or owe you loyalty somehow, or count on repeated cooperation in the future. So I guess the question one needs to ask oneself is - does this particular person, acting as a journalist, owes me any loyalty or has a special reason to feel they have to be nice to me? If not, expect nothing - anything you say can and will be used however they see fit, just as in any other conversation with a total stranger. Just because somebody calls themselves "journalist" doesn't make them any different.

You can't take back what you've said while on-the-record (you are on-the-record unless you have jointly agreed otherwise... not to mention clearly agree on what 'on background' or 'off-the-record' means to each of you).

Next time, seriously, read up on or take some media training before speaking with a journalist unless you are open to your words being repeated, summarized, abbreviated, etc.

And you learned a lesson in how reporting works.

Of course. Now I take questions in writing, and respond in writing. It's less work for the journalist, too, as they don't have to spend time transcribing a recording.

> they will cherry pick my words or "summarize the source" to fit their narrative

They can't show you their articles, but you can ask them about their angle. If you disagree, it's fine to say "I don't want to be a part of that". If they trust you, they'll ask why not. If you have a proper argument, you'll flip their angle. (I have.) If you have a flimsy argument, and they respect you, they'll tell you why they disagree. And now you have a proper discussion, which I find is much more interesting than answering a series of questions.

An important component is to have recurring value. If you're a one-off source, you'll have a bad time. If you can convince them you're of long-term value, now you have mutual leverage.

> An important component is to have recurring value. If you're a one-off source, you'll have a bad time. If you can convince them you're of long-term value, now you have mutual leverage.

So for the average person who might get contacted by a journalist once, infrequently, or rarely, probably the best advice is: do not talk to journalists.

If you're planning on making a career out of publicly airing your opinions in a professional capacity you'll probably want to intensively study how to deal with journalists.

I tried that once. Their angle agreed with mine. Until the article came out and it had flipped. So either they flipped their angle after we spoke or they lied to me.

Did you read their work before agreeing to an interview? (Asking because I’ve made that mistake. It’s my preference to choose my journalists rather than the other way around.)

Why go through all this effort dancing around like this? I mean why bother talking to them in the first place if they're going to be so obtuse?

> I won't talk to journalists anymore.

That was OP's conclusion

A few years ago, I was assaulted after a fashion. (The event could have caused permanent injury, even though it wasn't actually intended.) A friend of mine was a reporter for a local paper, and she asked if she could do a piece on it. I thought it'd be OK, since she wouldn't want to ruin me.

Funny thing.

She changed my position from "I could have been permanently injured!" to "I want all of those potential weapons removed from the state!"

Like you, I won't be talking to journalists again.

I also wish journalists would interview experts as you're describing, but I think this "why in the world would you not want to" sentiment is easily explained by looking at the incentives of journalists v.s. what you're trying to do as a responsible source, they don't align.

Journalists in general have a much larger incentive to cut down two accurate paragraphs to one less accurate (or even misleading one), after all they're competing in a market where people's eyes will glaze over a tweet because it's too long.

Furthermore, even supposedly responsible publications and papers of record have an incentive for sensationalism. Your level-headed summary of an event may not align with their editorial prerogatives.

Maybe the solution is to interview journalists like employees, journalists that can show examples of work that quoted sources accurately and completely combined with checking that source as a reference to see how they felt about the result should land you and the journalist in a good place. Align your interests. Good papers want good journalists that produce accurate content and can get sources, so do you.

> Good papers want good journalists that produce accurate content and can get sources, so do you.

For some definitions of good. I'm not convinced your definition of good and news organisations definition of good align well.

News organisations want to publish articles that will drive ad spend and subscriptions. You want to read articles that are factually accurate and quote original sources in full verbatim.

To expand a bit, if both sides did their due diligence 'bad' reporters wouldn't get sources. That is if sources vetted reporters then maintaining that reputation would be the only thing that got them high quality sources and then news sources that prioritized accuracy would have competitive advantage.

We have this already, in a less good light, reporters/news orgs building "good" relationships with people or companies and biasing their coverage in favor of the covered to maintain that good relationship. It sours the view of the news source when you start to see frequent hit pieces or undue praise of a subject that is a clear mark of a paper with an agenda.

It's not even editorial prerogatives; it's narrative. Newspaper stories - they're called stories for a reason. Stories need structure and internal consistency. Ambiguity and incomplete information are upsetting to the reader.

Sure, the more emotive a story is, the better chance it has of spreading, but it doesn't need to be sensationalist - it just needs to engage the reader on multiple levels. There are different kinds of emotions you can hit in the reader that don't rely on sensational reporting. Appealing to a sense of tribal belonging is a particularly strong one these days.

> when you contact me asking me to explain a technical topic in detail because you don't understand it, why in the world would you not want to show me the article before publication

Have you asked? What did they say? That would be interesting to learn. I don't feel that more expressions of outrage on the Internet are valuable to me; goodness knows we have had enough of those!

IME, usually quality publications get the facts right (and as importantly, they are not wrong in regard to the subtleties) on technical topics in which I have expertise. They might not go in depth enough to interest me, but if I have expertise then I'm not the audience.

In areas where I don't have expertise, I rarely see quality publications get important facts wrong, based on future reporting and on non-partisan, outside experts, though of course no human effort is perfect.

I discussed with what seemed to be ex-journalists here.

IIRC the question was why people hesitated to explain anything to journalists.

I earned myself a few downvotes and it seemed they agreed I wasn't to bright && probably had something to hide

This article was really disappointing. It doesn't answer the only question I really want to read about: what happens when people break these rules?

For it to work there has to be a relationship at stake. If there is, it works every time.

> for it to work there has to be a relationship at stake

And for this to have teeth, you need to (a) have relationships with multiple reporters and (b) provide recurring value. The first makes it possible to close off a reporter who misbehaves. The latter gives everyone an incentive to keep that from happening.

Journalist-source relationships are political. They aren't governed by laws, but tradeoffs and customs.

Or you can just hire a publicist that has a long term relationship. The effect can be similar.

> Or you can just hire a publicist

Unless you’re in the press every day, this hasn’t been—in my experience—worth it. Better to pick the relationships and delegate managing the messaging yourself.

If you (like one of reader comments on the NYT piece itself) are asking about what law is involved with this, the answer is "none". Nor, if you think about it a bit, could there be in the USA given the First Amendment. Once you voluntarily share facts and opinions with a 3rd party that information is theirs and they may legally disclose it as they wish. Even if there was a valid, written contract around it that would still be a matter of civil, not criminal, penalties and further itself subject to abrogation by public interest arguments.

Whistleblower laws deal with power and retaliation against a discloser by organizational superiors and (in some instances and locations) the state. They are not about "journalists" (which isn't a special category) but about protecting the release of information in the public interest, and apply for everyone. They're not for recourse against reporting or revelation by independent parties though (in fact that'd be directly against the point of them).

So basically what it comes down to is honor, reputation and future dynamics. It's about soft power human relations, with everything that comes with that. Obviously a reporter that develops a reputation for betraying sources will be unlikely to ever again get any sources, and the same for a larger news organization. Given the competitive nature of reporting, a news organization whose well of tips and sources dried up would suffer heavily for it, if not collapse entirely. Additionally, it's rare that critical off the record/background/deep background information is an end by itself. Rather, it's a jumping off point for investigation and corroboration by public sources and those willing to go on the record, and that is then what serves as the real core of the story. It is often the case that something critical is hidden more in the vast sea of noise and other information rather then through any particularly deep level of protection, so being pointed in the right direction and having investigators start asking questions and digging is more then enough.

It's a complex dance of motivations on each side, but over time the equilibrium has generally ended up somewhat around what this article discusses in terms of ethics. Not just pure self-interest but even idealistic goals considered long term and simple morality/empathy tend to drive a respect towards keeping promises. However even then it's never 100% certain, and it's not just the occasional genuine ethical breach or scumbag either. It's conceivable even the most scrupulous reporter could come across something so important and time sensitive that they'd decide burning their career and other lives would be a price worth paying and then just report it regardless. Conversely sources by definition are also always taking some risk by not keeping something to themselves, and will have their own sets of motivations and calculations about whether it's worth it or not.

The source will presumably deny, so there’s no point in breaking it?


The source will confirm it, but they’ll also let everyone know that you broke the rule, so as a journalist, again not in your interest to publish.

If you are Trump, then sure, go ahead, why not.

Can someone explain what happened here?

These Twitter threads, like most of them, don't make any sense to me.

The short version is that Naomi Wu was asked to give an interview to Vice. Before doing the interview, she asked that a few ground rules be followed -- as far as I'm aware the main one was that her relationship with her partner not be discussed (as far as I understand the concern was related to a conspiracy theory that Naomi doesn't do her projects herself -- and that her foreign partner does them for her -- which could cause massive political problems for her in China). Vice decided to ask her questions about it anyway, and included those questions in the article (and apparently Naomi didn't know they were going to include them). Naomi then went on to talk about how this was (in her view) a massive breach of ethics, and how it endangered her safety within China (something that she apparently explained to Vice before accepting the interview).

Once the article came out, Naomi tried to get them to remove that section of the article and they didn't respond to any of her emails. She then went on to "dox" one of the reporters (though I have heard that the information she posted was available just by searching his name online).

Sarah Jeong basically attempted to counter this criticism of Vice by saying that she has asked around, and Naomi's concerns are ill-founded (Sarah used to work for Vice, so you could argue that she isn't exactly impartial on this topic). And obviously most media outlets focused on Naomi's doxxing (which to be clear -- is something that shouldn't have been ignored) rather than the original situation with Vice. This evolved into a pretty big argument, and Naomi appears to have come to the conclusion that almost all western media is unethical.

Later Vice apparently asked Patreon to close Naomi's account (as a response to her doxxing one of their employees), and Patreon followed their instructions -- cutting Naomi off from one of her sources of income for her videos. It's apparently very hard to get donations into China (crypto-currencies don't help because you cannot convert them into real money inside China easily).

Hopefully I've explained the situation without letting my position poison the summary.

To be clear, I can't find anything in the Vice article that actually talks about Naomi's relationship, marital status or sexual orientation beyond a cursory question about the conspiracy theory. It seems that Vice followed her wishes up until the point that the conspiracy theory was mentioned (which in Naomi's defense would obviously be upsetting).

So here's the quote from the article[1]:

> In the past few years, she’s been forced to fend off vile and unfounded conspiracy theories on Reddit and 4chan that suggest a white man has masterminded her career

I think that the main concern is that they refer to it specifically as being a foreign man masterminding her career -- not just a general conspiracy theory.

While I understand them wanting to say it's wrong (which is what they are saying), according to Naomi[2] the idea of a "foreign puppet-master" is a dog-whistle in China (which, from what I've heard, has an incredibly protectionist culture). The idea of a figurehead of Shenzhen's maker culture being controlled by a foreigner would apparently not end well for Naomi.

[1]: I'm not going to link it here, just Google "Naomi Wu vice". [2]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0dkwwV_iaw&lc=UgxKQJHTXHv9b... -- I don't like this particular YouTuber, but Naomi responds in the comments.

I'm not seeing how what Vice printed (conspiracy theory) goes against what she asked them not to question her about in the tweet screenshot (relationships/orientation).

They might have removed it when she asked, but I don't see how they broke the original agreement.

Also, do I understand that Jeong's only involvement with this was that she commented on the situation after the fact? Or did she have something to do with the original article?

> Or did she have something to do with the original article?

She didn't have anything to do with the original article. She came to the defense of her former colleagues (she used to work for Vice) and claimed that Naomi was manipulating her fanbase into believing that she was in danger when she really wasn't[1].

[1]: https://twitter.com/sarahjeong/status/981575986322989056

Vice come across as a slimey bag of dicks in most of their actions.

Well with a name like vice one can't be too surprised...

Also, it's worth mentioning that Naomi was screwed over by MakerBot's founder before, who publically questioned her existence, describing her as "many personas or persons"

The truth is that these people took one look at Naomi, assumed she was a ditz, a slut, or some kind of animal, and figured they could do whatever they wanted to her. Because, hey, it ain't a crime to slaughter a sow.

They forget too easily that treating people like animals, means becoming an animal.

What a way to lose your humanity.

This person did one of the best summaries of the whole situation that I've seen, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0dkwwV_iaw

I can't vouch too much for the veracity of everything in the video but there's nothing I know of that she got wrong.

EDIT: Just saw that Wu has actually responded to the video in the comments too, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0dkwwV_iaw&lc=UgxKQJHTXHv9b...

I was curious about the context behind this, so I found the response to these accusations: https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/981558161566920704.html

This format is unreadable on mobile. There's tons of external content that displays as big white boxes that won't load, and the text alone isn't enough to understand the story.


I flagged this comment because I believe it is far outside of appropriate discussion to dehumanize someone in the way your comment does. For other commenters, the original comment before editing said:

"And now this thing works for the NYTimes."

and after an initial edit, it says:

"And now this... 'person' works for the NYTimes."

> If you flag something, please don't also comment that you did.

Please follow the rules.

It's pretty rich to tell others to follow the rules after you just broke them yourself in a far worse way, and set the thread on fire while doing so. Whether you intended to or not, what you posted amounts to trolling. We ban accounts that do that. Please don't do it again.

Instead, please review https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html and follow the rules in both letter and spirit, regardless of how you feel about journalistic ethics or how badly someone once behaved.

Someone who is posting obvious flamebait does not get to complain about people not following the rules.

zorpner 8 months ago [flagged]

You called another human being a 'thing', and then corrected it to '"person"' (with the quotation marks). And now, of course, you'd like others to follow the rules.

You disgust me, because you are disgusting.

That's egregious. You can't comment like this, regardless of how bad another comment was. Commenters to HN need to either be civil or not post.

These high-dudgeon internet spats would be merely ludicrous if they didn't also have the potential to destroy what little community we have here. Both you and hitekker injected poisons: he by trolling the thread by being vicious while pretending not to, and you with a trope of the aggressive online shaming culture. We've all seen what these things lead to elsewhere, so we have no choice but to ban people if they do them repeatedly here. Please don't.

Then delete the comments. If we're not supposed to respond to something that terrible, don't leave it on the site.

What you're not supposed to do is take someone else's bad comment as a license to violate the rules yourself.

HN does 'delete' comments in one way (flagging by user or moderator), but this is not a complete solution because such comments appear before they are killed.

I flagged this comment because it seems to be an obvious violation of the HN guidelines:

* Eschew flamebait. Don't introduce flamewar topics unless you have something genuinely new to say. Avoid unrelated controversies and generic tangents.

This isn't flamebait.

We got a softball article about a topic from a publisher who has recently violated the very spirit of that topic.

Hypocrisy is hypocrisy and we should know about it, not hide from it.

Also, to be fair, the guidelines say:

>If you flag something, please don't also comment that you did.

It is flamebait. It has absolutely nothing to do with the article at hand; it just serves to take a cheap shot at a publication the poster doesn't like.

I once was involved in a journalistic/fact-finding endeavor involving myriad confidential exchanges of information.

One of the biggest lessons from the experience has been that a promise of confidentiality should be extended only when absolutely necessary. In aggregate, it would have been better to have a smaller amount of information that could be made public than a comprehensive set of information that remains restricted, perhaps forever.

If I need to do such a thing again, I will make plain to each source, in writing when possible, that, while I am attempting to get to the truth and will treat their information with care, I may publish anything I learn, full stop.

> If I need to do such a thing again, I will make plain to each source, in writing when possible, that, while I am attempting to get to the truth and will treat their information with care, I may publish anything I learn, full stop.

I think the point you are missing is that people won't talk to journalists at all in the first place if they're on the record. You can put your foot down all you like and say 'it's all on the record' but then they'll just say 'ha ha ok no comment then' and you'll learn nothing.

Agreed entirely; it seems like a bad idea, but the flip side is that anything they do feel comfortable sharing with you can be readily shared with others. That second fact, coupled with the reality that many people like to tell their own stories, at least in part, is more powerful than anything learned through anonymity.

Viewed another way, if the goal is to get to the truth and share it, it is useless to learn an unshareable truth.

Sounds miserable, knowing the truth in detail and feeling forced to write half truths.

Isn't that basically the job description for most of us in economics/analytics/information/writing/consulting fields?

/haha, only serious.

In the NYTimes, off the record usually means a government official strategically "leaking" information following the government line, being granted anonymity by the paper because (?).

I expected an article about common journalist practices and I from the start I got an attack on Trump because of some (of a countless and never ending variety) beef they had with them instead. Of course, this could also be seen as "explaining some of our journalistic practices". I get it, good work.

First two words of the article: "President Trump"

Is it possible for the news to cover anything without including an opinion about Trump--or his tweets? I am so turned off by this "style" of journalism where every piece includes an opinion (implied or explicit) about the president of the United States. Sad.

The reason for the article being written is that Trump broke an off the record agreement with the Times a few days ago.

Not only that, he stared directly into an eclipse!

Haha. Yes, more importantly, the eclipse thing. Because no one else did that.

What does it even mean for a non-journalist to have an off-the-record agreement? If a interviewee asks a journalist that something be off the record, there is generally an expectation that it will not be reported on by the journalist. But does that mean that the interviewee can't talk about what the journalist said during the meeting? I'm interested in hearing what the specifics of the agreement were - whether they were phrased as "neither side talks about this", or if it was just phrased as an 'off the record meeting', which in my mind only applies to the journalist in the room.

I thought that term "off the record" was meant to protect sources, not journalists. Whatever the term was expected to mean by both parties, it kind of comes down to what leverage either side has to uphold the verbal agreement. The journalist has a lot to lose if they agree to be off the record, then report on that information. Does Trump care at all that NYT is throwing a toddler fit over his comments? We all know the answer to that one.

Yeah, I get that. And I admit that Trump as a subject is relevant in this article.

Bottom line is Trump has a way of attracting attention, which only seems to help his cause. I was just venting a bit about how often we see Trump in the news, and how Trump as a subject has a way bringing good journalists down a level because they fall prey to biased reporting due to their personal views. Did this journalist really need to mention the whole eclipse-looking thing?

It's like celebrity news, I don't care (not much anyway), but somehow this information just finds it's way in front of me and into my brain.

Most of the time, when spoken by those in power, it is a lie, and it really means "I'm trying to be deceptive".

Most of the time, when requested by those with vulnerability, it is the gateway to critical, but potentially highly dangerous information, and a request for protection.

That's exactly the kind of attitude that gets a person in trouble. I hope you find some shades of grey in your views. Bad people exist in all stripes of life and in all communities.

I think the "one company" media in the US has lost authoritativity and credibility with anyone who thinks.

The media makes its money by keeping sheep as sheep, and leading them to the shearers or the slaughter. If it taught critical thought then someone who knows what a free market is would strongly oppose the single-source for news, and that monopoly would end. They would not make as much money with paid workers as they do with slaves - intellectually and cognitively speaking. Junk journalism would get junk revenue, not top billing.

> the "one company" media in the US has lost authoritativity and credibility with anyone who thinks

I think quite a bit, and I greatly value many publications. The NYT in particular is an independent company, and so is not part of any 'one company' news media. That said, I do wish there was more diversity in ownership; in particular, I wish there were serious publications that served an audience besides the intellectual middle-upper class.

It's becoming increasingly clear to me that every time a journalist agrees to any ground rules they have compromised their profession or given the appearance of compromise (which is actually worse than hidden corruption in terms of the effect on public trust).

Conditions on reporting turn reporters ever so slightly from press to publicist. And at that point it's like the cliché about being willing to sleep with someone for millions -- the character has been established and the only thing left is negotiating the price.

Even though the article says it's not done, you have to imagine that some reporters will agree to change a conversation into an "off-the-record" one in exchange for access or a scoop. News orgs live and die by the access they get and if some reporters are willing to prostitute themselves to get it, it puts enormous pressure on the rest.

Conditions on reporting should be treated like doping in sports.

Edit: there is one area in which my framework needs a clarifying remark. A reporter can always voluntarily refuse to identify a source or otherwise protect it and the source can always use electronic or even snail mail methods to preserve their anonymity. My comments above are not intended to mean that reporters must always report every detail of every interaction, only that agreeing to conditions in advance can compromise their integrity and pervert the role of the press generally.

2nd edit: I'm convinced there are areas where granting anonymity is absolutely essential. My above position was clearly a knee-jerk and not well grounded in reality. Thanks HN.

I strongly disagree with you. I was interviewed by the WSJ and a few other organizations a few months ago. There are a variety of details I was willing to give to provide greater clarity and context to the situation, but only if those details wouldn't actually be in the article itself. In fact, these weren't even details that would make me look worse - they're details I personally felt would unfairly make other parties look bad if they were read in a newspaper article. But those details were still germane to the setting of the story. Moreover, I didn't really want my name to be in the story either - I'd rather have my research show up on the first page of a search engine rather than a bunch of news articles about me.

The reality of human communication and social dynamics is that the same information can be received quite differently based on 1) the medium of delivery, 2) the person receiving the information, 3) the receiving person's prior knowledge, and 4) the amount of time that can be spent putting the information into a charitable or uncharitable context. Sometimes it is legitimately useful for a reporter to have information which can inform the parts of a story they will report on. And of course if I tell a reporter something, I have no creative control on how or if the information will be used and presented in the final piece.

Is this sometimes misused? Of course. But it's not intrinsically bad or good, it simply allows both parties to have greater control and flexibility over what is said. If you took away reporters' ability to get details off the record, you would not find yourself in a new journalistic utopia with greater transparency and accountability. You'd simply make it harder for reporters to find leads and information.

I do not believe that setting "ground rules" or "agreeing to terms in advance" compromises the journalistic integrity of a reporter. I think reasonable and honest people can believe it's in the best interest of all involved if they can provide context and clarity without those details being widely disseminated. The potential for misuse here does not negate the flexibility of that paradigm when it's used with integrity.

Some of the most important reporting simply wouldn't happen without off-the-record conversations. Without protection for sources, very few people will have the confidence to blow the whistle on wrongdoing. Without a steady stream of confidential leaks, most political reporters would be completely blind as to the inner workings of government. Without off-the-record reporting, most corporate scandals would never be revealed.


The reality is that nearly all sources, on or off the record, have an agenda. That’s why reporters usually need multiple sources and other proof to run something important.

History is filled with stories that would never have been told if the people who told them weren’t granted anonymity. Going off the record shouldn’t be accepted easily, and some reporters (including some stars at the Times) give anonymity to people in the current administration who are known to lie constantly, which is a terrible practice. But eliminating tools reporters can use to unconver dangerous hidden truths just for the sake of “objectivity,” which is always an illusion, doesn’t make sense to me.

I edited my comment above in anticipation of this truth. You're right and the difficulty with anonymously passing info is that the reporter can't verify the source's integrity very easily (not every source has access to a non-public document or other independent source of identity verification). I still believe these issues can be addressed without a reporter compromising themselves.

Maybe one bright line rule everyone could agree to is no conditions on reporting when covering an elected or high-ranking (cabinet level or heads of agencies, etc.) official. Wouldn't even cover their staff -- but anything you see or hear a politician or high-level official do should be reportable in my opinion.

It’s admirable to reconsider as you have, but there are some serious inconsistencies in the popular ideas you’re aligning with and you may want to clarify.

The difference between whistleblowing and reporting is purely subjective and ultimately undermine the ideals of noble protections for the press that so many love to defend. Until we find consistency here, we are also protecting a privileged class of reporters and should at least consider the ramifications of delegating press responsibilities this way before settling.

Why should we be guarding the NYT reporters while at the same time banishing Snowden?

In an age of electronic media, our economy of attention is a full capacity. Freedom of expression is a tiny concern compared with power of distributions. Centralization of press responsibilities (separate discussion) make sense but we must confront the realities of the machine this creates when we put so much into protections. Many jobs carry great risk, and people choose them anyhow. Risk acceptance is a classical way of measuring one’s loyalty to the the collective good. It’s the basis for unmitigated respect to a nation’s soldiers. Our current attention economy and the desirability to be a reporter might serve a critical public good.

I argue we should reconsider accepting half-truths in exchange for protections of an elite press. We desperately need a press devoted to working people and this sounds like one possible ethical path in that direction. It’s not an easy one, and worthy of debate. But, what we have is a disaster.

EDIT: Off the record, I work in the press. I desire to take more risk in the name of competent work, but as long as I must compete with those comforted by the standard operating procedures, I am afraid I cannot.

> I work in the press

Thanks for sharing your expertise. I'm sure others value it as well.

> I argue we should reconsider accepting half-truths in exchange for protections of an elite press. We desperately need a press devoted to working people ...

While I agree with the second phrase (and in fact you can find another comment where I already said it), I don't understand what you mean by the first and I'm very interested in your professional perspective: More protections for professional journalism? Government funding? Ending free speech for non-journalists? It's a bit ambiguous.

> I desire to take more risk in the name of competent work, but as long as I must compete with those comforted by the standard operating procedures, I am afraid I cannot.

Can you spell out what those standard procedures are and why they stop you? Again, very interested, and I'm sure others would be too.

Based on my limited knowledge, the primary issue is that the publication must work for customers who can pay enough to support them, which are the middle/upper-class.

> anything you see or hear a politician or high-level official do should be reportable

It is. “Off the record” isn’t legally binding. Journalists exercise judgement between reporting a silly thing now versus saving a source's trust for a bigger reveal later. “Reportable” doesn’t mean “reported”.

>The reality is that nearly all sources, on or off the record, have an agenda.

Sure, but that must be extended to the fact that in reality also the reporter, the editor, the newspaper/TV director often have their own agenda as well.

Why are you implying that “having an agenda” is the accusation? The problem is having an unethical agenda. How is that not clear? Or, are you asserting that nobody has an ethical agenda?

You've been making a habit of posting flamewar-style comments to HN. We eventually ban accounts that do that, because they lower discussion quality and encourage worse from others. Would you please read https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html and only post civilly and substantively from now on?

The idea is: if you have a substantive point to make, make it thoughtfully; if you don't, please don't comment until you do.

Not the GP, but how would you define "unethical agenda" in the reporting context?


“Not morally approvable; morally bad; not ethical.”


EDIT: The accusation was that the subjects all “have an agenda”. The subjects are not the reporters, so a dictionary definition is the exactly the right amount of specificity.

Since morals vary by social norms and culture, I'm not sure that's a great definition of unethical in the context of journalistic integrity.

Very true. But neither social norms or culture were defined. I think they make a fine point here.

That’s just nonsense. There are many valid reasons why people might want to stay out of the news but provide information. The archetypal example of Deep Throat, now known to be a top FBI offical, leading reporters towards independently confirming presidential wrongdoing, does not seem to exemplify a compromised reporter at all. There are many other examples. Sure it’s often misused but the core concept has value.

> Even though the article says it's not done, you have to imagine that some reporters will agree to change a conversation into an "off-the-record" one in exchange for access or a scoop.

Where does the article say this isn't done? It only says that the journalist isn't bound to retroactively convert comments to be off-the-record at the request of the interviewee.

For better or worse, the journalist is always free to selectively report; they are not required to print every statement made on the record.

A bad web entrepreneur walks into a courtroom with a gaggle of lawyers in tow.

accuser - "..You spied on customers, sold their data, etc. etc. We just made a whole bunch of laws about that. Bad!"

accused - "All that is true, but I have this nag screen, those terms and conditions and all sorts of stuff my lawyers assure me makes all that legal. Those laws should really have been written differently."

judge - Oh. Well.. off you go then.

Violating the spirit of a rule, in a rule-oriented environment, is not a rule violation. It can even be vindicating. In sports, for example, playing to the rules is often considered a show of craft & skill. Law too.

I think the same applies here. There are lines that should never be crossed. But, it's better to keep journalistic ethics principle-oriented rather than rule-oriented.

Conditions can compromise a journalist and let the subject dictate things, turning press into publicist as you say. It can also enable journalists to investigate more effectively. The balance has to be determined in a principled way. It can't be litigated.

This example isn’t cutting it. Aren’t you just scapegoating the criminal justice system? How can this result in anything but a race to the bottom?

I don't think it's a race in any direction. There's just a trade-off of sorts between principles and rules. Law works based on rules and so does sports. Not everything is quite that clear-cut, but I think a trade-off is always there. Sometimes one is more appropriate than another.

Investigative journalism is often in a gray zone. I'd they didn't allow conditions then a lot of sources wouldn't and couldn't talk. A lot of whistleblowers would bee afraid of consequences. In the end it's up to the ethics of the journalist to handle this correctly and make sure that off the record conversations aren't misused.

I disagree. The article notes several times that a source requiring broad anonymity should be viewed with skepticism. The implication is that the source my have ulterior motives, and the journalist has a duty to determine the story’s veracity.

However, not all sources require anonimity simply to spread disinformation. Some of our most culturally significant news stories have spawned from sources requiring extreme anonimity. In these cases it is up to the journalist to corroborate the information.

> Conditions on reporting turn reporters ever so slightly from press to publicist.

Only if that obliged them to report what the source said uncritically, which it doesn't at all.

I mean, I'm not defending the principle, but realistically it's where we are. e.g. the Trump administration has outright said that they will fire anyone leaking information to the press. So the only way to get information about what going on in there is to allow your source to be publicly anonymous.

> you have to imagine that some reporters will agree to change a conversation into an "off-the-record" one in exchange for access or a scoop.

Corruption exists in every industry and journalism is no different. The question for any reader is working out who they trust. The NYT says here that they explicitly ban that practice, and you can either take their word for it or not, I suppose. I don't know how you'd disprove a negative in this context.

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