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American Journalism Review
"On Deep Background"  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 1994

"On Deep Background"   

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     

Related reading:
   » Using Unnamed Sources
   » Offside on O.J.
   » Anonymous Sources

Off the record, on background, on deep background does everyone know exactly what these terms mean? Does everyone agree? Not entirely.

Off the Record Edward Pound , reporter, U.S. News & World Report: "It means I can't use it unless I can get it elsewhere... Most sources don't understand it. They tend to think off the record and on background are the same thing."

Steve Weinberg , reporter: "You can listen and you can do something with it but you can't in any way attribute it or even vaguely suggest that it came from a source."

Darrell Christian , managing editor, Associated Press: "You don't use it under any circumstances."

Peter Prichard , editor, USA Today: "It means you can't use it. That's my opinion.... Actually, it means different things to different people."

On Background Bob Woodward , author: "It means that I'm not going to identify the source but I'm going to use it all."

David Hawpe , editor, Louisville Courier-Journal: "Well, that normally means you can use it only for your own information, just so you understand."

Karen Hosler , congressional correspondent, Baltimore's Sun: "On background means you can attribute word for word but you can't use the person's name. At the White House it always has to be a 'senior administration official.' "

Michael Gartner , editor, Daily Tribune, Ames, Iowa: "It means different things to different people. I've never understood it."

Philip Scheffler , senior producer, 60 Minutes: "Hmmmm. Those distinctions are of much greater interest to people who work in Washington."

On Deep Background Hosler : "You can report as 'it was learned.' You can almost state it as fact. Sometimes you have to hedge your words."

So, Are There Differences Between Off the Record and On Background? George Freeman , New York Times attorney: "Yes, there are, but I've never quite figured them out. I tell reporters if they really want the source to understand, make it clear. But those words generally cause more confusion than anything else."



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