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Can someone explain to me the nature of 'On Background'

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by earlyentry, May 30, 2008.

  1. earlyentry

    earlyentry Member

    This is a term I'm vaguely familiar with. Would it help me to use this if someone won't go on record? Do they generally open up if you explain to them it's on background?
  2. forever_town

    forever_town Well-Known Member

    As I understand it, on background is not something you can use or quote anyone in print, but it's a source giving you information that you then use to get the information FOR THE RECORD elsewhere.

    And usually, it's not you proposing it. The source is the one who asks to have something on background.

    Then again, I've only ever taken two journalism classes since my high school days. I'd welcome someone who has more familiarity with the term correcting me on it.
  3. PeteyPirate

    PeteyPirate Guest

    And if you get the information on Deep_Background, you are required to print it even though it's old news, usually from a dubious source.
  4. Football_Bat

    Football_Bat Well-Known Member

  5. beardpuller

    beardpuller Active Member

    Well, I've been understanding it wrong for 30 years then, because I've always used stuff that was on background, without attribution.
    If you can't use it, it's no different from off the record. You can take something that's off the record to another source to see if you can get them to legitimize it. With background, my understanding is that it is unsourced in the story.
  6. forever_town

    forever_town Well-Known Member

    That's why I made sure to say "as I understand it" and I asked someone with more command of the expression than I have to correct me.
  7. Shifty Squid

    Shifty Squid Member

    This is generally correct, as far as I know, though not complete.

    If something in an interview is said "on background," that indicates the information can be used in the story, but no direct quotes can be used, nor should the source be identified. Quoting someone but only identifying them in general terms (i.e., "... said a source close to the negotiations") is referred to as "Not for attribution." There's also "deep background," which usually means you can't use it in the story but can attempt to find another source who might confirm the information.

    All in all, though, these terms aren't often understood by us, much less the people we're interviewing. Use them very carefully, and make sure the other party is absolutely clear on the agreement before going forward with using the information he gives you. Don't just say "This will be on background" and leave it at that, unless you have a relationship with the source such that you both know the parameters. It should always be laid out to avoid confusion and future problems with the source when you used information he gave you in a way he didn't think you would.
  8. Moderator1

    Moderator1 Moderator Staff Member

    Yes, on background is usable stuff without attribution - off the record is DO NOT USE.
  9. On Background is a valuable tool, EE. Lots of sources say "off the record" and actually mean this. Of course they want to see it in the paper, they just don't want their name attached to it.

    Just make sure each side understands exactly what they're agreeing to before you move forward.
  10. beardpuller

    beardpuller Active Member

    Wasn't trying to be snippy, Forever ... I was just alarmed that I might have had the wrong idea my whole career!
  11. forever_town

    forever_town Well-Known Member

    Ah, gotcha.

    I guess the terms can be tricky for anyone to understand, even us.
  12. forever_town

    forever_town Well-Known Member

    There've been times when I've asked point blank if I can use "a source familiar with the negotiations."

    It's best to make sure you and your source are totally on the same page.
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