Although “Your World Today” is often used to inform and educate readers on topics in the news, in this edition it will be used to educate the public on an aspect of how journalism works.
Journalism is the art of gathering information from sources and reporting it as news to the general public. However, many people do not understand that when journalists present an news piece intended to be objective, it is done by presenting facts and statements from sources (with the exception of commentary). Every fact must be drawn from a primary source.
Journalists use something called the “coherence theory of truth” to establish facts. In layman’s terms, this theory defines the truth as that which agrees with all other statements that are true.
For example, if three separate sources can verify something happened, then for the sake of reporting it did happen. However, if three sources hold one account of events and three others hold another, then it becomes dubious what actually happened. A good journalist would report all six separate testimonies and allow the audience to make up its own mind of what happened.
However, it is never as easy as described above. Sometimes journalists will find one source that will go on record and present a certain version of events, but then several other sources will come forward and dispute the information off the record.
If there’s one thing journalists take seriously, it is the safety and privacy of their sources. When journalists make a promise to protect a source, they often keep it even if it lands them in prison per a subpoena from a court. But many members of the public do not fully understand what sort of agreements have been used in the past.
“On the record”: When a source makes a statement on the record, it means it can be published and used in the context it was used. All statements made in public spaces or during public meetings are on the record, and in private conversations, everything spoken to a journalist is on the record unless the source or journalist sets rules for the interaction in advance.
Sources cannot go back on what they say after the fact and change it unless they wish to make a correction to inaccurate information they previously gave.
“Background”: How journalists and sources define background information is very ambiguous, and so The Slate prefers not to use it at all. However, background information is that which may be published under circumstances set forth by a source. For example, some publications allow information to be attributed to anonymous sources, or sources whose jobs or roles are defined without specific names given. The Slate seldom allows this because it prefers that all sources be held accountable for what they say.
“Deep background”: Deep background is often lumped in with background information and off-the-record information. Deep background implies the information acts purely as a “tip.”
The Slate acknowledges this information but will not publish it unless it can be corraborated by other sources on the record.
“Off the record”: When a source defines a statement as off the record, and it is made in confidence to a journalist, it cannot be reported on at all. Oftentimes, this agreement is used by sources to give journalists a broader understanding of a situation without suffering the penalties that would be incurred by their speculation or commentary.
Sources do this because it could damage their reputation to be quoted, and could land them in professional jeopardy with their employer.
However, this goes both ways. As far as The Slate is concerned, if both parties agree that a conversation or comment is off the record, then neither party should acknowledge even the existence of the conversation nor the details shared during it.
The world of journalism is filled with plenty of loops and twists and sources are not always willing to jeopardize their positions by going on the record. If all journalists did was report using anonymous sources, the credibility of their story would slowly fall apart.
Democracy cannot exist without a free press informing a public about what is happening. But the free press cannot successfully deliver information without a willing public that understands and makes use of the aforementioned agreements to help journalists reach the truth.
"Your World Today" is a weekly column written by the editor-in-chief of The Slate. It represents solely the subjective opinion of the individual who wrote it. For Staff Editorial opinions, see this week's "The Slate Speaks."