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Media Rules of the Road

When a reporter calls you, before you utter a word, you need to establish if you are “on the record,” “off the record” or “on background.” If you don’t clarify that at the outset, the assumption is you are “on the record,” which means anything you say can and will be used against you. When you switch modes, make sure the reporter knows which mode you are in. Ask him/her to acknowledge that he/she understands. Those modes are as follows:
  • “On the record” – Everything you say can be used.
  • “Off the record” – Nothing you say can be used.
  • “On background” – They can use what you say as unattributed background for the story, but they can’t identify you as the source.
  • Anonymity – Being quoted as “an anonymous source” is usually granted very sparingly by reporters, in consultation with top editors, to people whose personal, professional or financial security would be jeopardized by identifying them. It also has to be a situation where the story could not otherwise be reported without the “anonymous source,” and there usually is some overarching public interest at stake. Libel-conscious media outlets may also ask you to sign a sworn affidavit attesting to the truth of the information you provide anonymously.
Before engaging in a media interview, it’s best to understand the rules of the road.