Over the past week, Profit faced a bit of criticism from one of the subjects of a story that we did. The story had virtually nothing negative to say about the person or company involved, but the resulting brouhaha led us to understand that there is a great deal of confusion amongst the public on the nature of information and how journalists treat it.
So we thought we would spend this editorial laying out the types of information we receive from people, and what our rights and responsibilities – and the rights and responsibilities of the people who give us that information, or whom it is about (not always the same) – are so that we can avoid such miscommunications in the future.
News organisations like ours rely on information given to us by our sources, and a big part of our framework for sharing information with our readers derives from the nature of our relationships with our sources. And that relationship is driven in large part by what the sources choose for themselves with respect to the manner in which they wish to be quoted.
They can choose any one of the following methods to speak to us and can also choose for parts of their interaction to be under one method and the others in other methods.
- On the record: What they say is quotable as direct quotes and attributable to them by name.
- Unattributed: What they say can be used even in direct quotes, but without naming them, and with a general description of them (e.g. an investment banker who wished to remain anonymous).
- On background/Off-the-record: What they say can be used, but not in direct quotes, just in general statements. (E.g. “According to one industry expert,….”)
- Deep background: We cannot use what they tell us in an article, but we can use it, without attribution to them in any way, in our conversations with other sources to ask them questions. (“I’ve heard some people say X. What do you think?”)
Once such a request has been made and agreed to ahead of time by any of our journalists, we are required to abide by it. People also have the right to request the manner in which we share information that they provide about themselves/their work/their organisation and we are obliged to abide by our agreement. This includes things like on-the-record vs off-the-record as well as timing of release of the information.
If we obtain information from some other source and it concerns a person, their work, or their organisation, we are obliged to ask them to comment on it, but are not required to keep it confidential if the source that provided this information did not request that we do so.
If we provide a person with sufficient time to respond (72 hours for magazine stories, shorter for newspaper stories) and they choose not to respond, we retain the right to run with the information if we deem it to be from a credible source and in itself credible. For more time sensitive stories, we may request a shorter timeline for a response, and that shorter timeline must be communicated by us in advance.
If we get something wrong post-publication, or if something was published without adequate context, the subject of the story has the right to request a correction (when we got something wrong) or an amplification (where we missed adequate context) and we are obligated to run it on our website, and admit to the specific mistake we made.
From this point forward, any e-mail request for interviews with anyone from Profit will contain a summary of the aforementioned rules. We hope this set of rules and responsibilities will help clear up confusion on our end, as well as help our readers hold us accountable when we fall short of our own standards.