Ethical journalists act with integrity, seek the truth, and report on it. Telling a story of public interest requires transparency on who provided the information and how the reporter acquired it. Sometimes sources or experts will only speak with a journalist if the conversation is considered on background or deep background. The terms are part of a journalist’s reporting arsenal and should only be used when necessary. But some subjects, particularly those in positions of power, have used this type of attribution to their advantage.
Either a reporter or a source may suggest conducting an interview on background or deep background when a source wants to share pertinent information with the reporter and prefers to remain anonymous. The reason may be fear of a potential job loss or harassment if their name were published. But the definitions can be murky, and journalists should explain what these terms mean before the interview to avoid confusion.
The Associated Press defines background as “information [that] can be published but only under conditions negotiated with the source.” In this instance, sources don’t want their names published but may agree to a generalized description of their role. For example, you might see a quote or facts in an article attributed to “a high-ranking official in the Chancellor’s office.”
Deep background means the information can be published without attribution, and the source doesn’t want to be identified in any way.
For example, the New York Times reported on March 7 that U.S. officials have reviewed some new intelligence about an attack on the Nord Stream pipeline last year and now believe it was carried out by pro-Ukrainian group not affiliated with the Zelensky government. In the spirit of transparency, the reporters explain in the story that those U.S. officials “all spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss classified intelligence and matters of sensitive diplomacy.”
“U.S. officials said that they had no evidence President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine or his top lieutenants were involved in the operation, or that the perpetrators were acting at the direction of any Ukrainian government officials.”New York Times, March 7, 2023
Ultimately, any information attributed to an anonymous source should be factual and vital to the story. The source should be credible and directly knowledgeable about the subject. But on-the-record sourcing always carries more weight. Thus, a reporter should independently verify the information, through another interview or court document, and attribute it on the record.
Traditionally, background interviews exist to protect vulnerable interview subjects. But it’s become commonplace for even sources in positions of power or esteem to push for these interviews to avoid any accountability at all.
Just a week into his role as White House Director of Communications, Anthony Scaramucci criticized members of the Trump Administration in a phone interview with The New Yorker. He believed he had anonymity without actually establishing it ahead of time, but that’s not how it works, as reporter Mary Beth Schneider points out in her tweet. Scaramucci was ousted from his role four days later.
Subjects like Scaramucci may try to unilaterally impose the rule without an agreement from the reporter—and cry breach of trust when they don’t get their way. For example, the subject may email the reporter a juicy statement detailing exactly what they wanted to know and say it’s only for background or deep background. Reporters are either left performing mental gymnastics to write the story without naming the source or publishing the story with full attribution because they never agreed to a one-sided conversation in the first place.
Naming someone who wishes to remain anonymous is known as “burning a source” and most likely will cost them the source’s trust and future access to them. No journalist wants to be in this position. And it’s the readers who suffer the most.
When reporters can’t attribute information appropriately, readers don’t have clear origins of information, and that feeds into distrust of the media, says The Verge’s Editor-in-chief, Nilay Patel. What’s more, if the information changes after one of these interviews, it’s often the reporter who is left embarrassed, not the source.
To combat this new norm, journalists must remember the four tenets of ethical journalism: Seek truth and report it; minimize harm; act independently; and be accountable and transparent. They should push back against these one-sided agreements and refuse to publish the curated narratives. And instead, fight to protect the anonymity of their most vulnerable sources by agreeing to background terms only when necessary.