Norman Pearlstine
Off The Record
Off The Record Book By Norman Pearlstine

Off the Record: Editorial Guidelines

Norman Pearlstine has created the following editorial guidelines regarding investigative reporting, professional credibility, and source confidentiality for journalists of all types. The content below and the sources it relied on may also be found in the Appendix of Off the Record.

These editorial guidelines are based on Time Inc.’s new guidelines and, in many places, are identical to them. They also include small sections taken verbatim from the guidelines of The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.

The section on using confidential sources relies on Professor Geoffrey Stone’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and brief phrases are included from many of the news outlets whose guidelines are referred to in chapter 18.


We endeavor to serve the public interest by practicing the highest standards of professional journalism. Credibility is our most precious asset. It is arduously acquired and easily squandered. It can be maintained only if each of us accepts responsibility for it.

The ways in which we can discredit ourselves are beyond calculation. It is up to staff members to master these general principles and, beyond that, to listen carefully to their individual sense of right and wrong. If you know of anything that might cast a shadow on our reputation, you are expected to inform a supervising editor. This can be an uncomfortable duty; under some circumstances, it can do harm to one’s relationships with fellow journalists. It is, nonetheless, a duty.

These guidelines contain useful principles for editorial staffers as well as freelancers. They apply to all the work we produce, in print, for broadcast, or on the Internet. They are, however, only guidelines, and there may be exceptions. You may encounter situations not described in these guidelines. At times, circumstances and good judgment may dictate different methods. Confer with your supervisor or an editor, including, if necessary, the editor in chief, whenever you are uncertain about what to do. Do not be shy about asking questions. A robust, ongoing discussion of ethics at all levels is essential if we are to serve the public interest.

We are aware that the publication of editorial guidelines can create problems. Lawyers will try to use them against us in litigation. Any discrepancy between what the guidelines say and what a journalist did in a particular situation will be highlighted in a lawsuit. While recognizing this risk, we believe that these guidelines will help journalists conduct themselves in accordance with responsible journalistic practices and ensure that their work will be as accurate as possible.


A fair-minded reader of our news coverage should not be able to discern the private opinions of those who contributed to that coverage or to infer that we are promoting any agenda. A crucial goal of our news and feature reporting—apart from editorials, columns, criticism, and other content that is expressly opinionated—is to be nonideological. Our stories may often make a point. But that point should be based on our reporting, not on our predetermined point of view. It may be difficult to fulfill our commitment to fairness. We must recognize our own biases and stand apart from them. We must also examine the ideological environment in which we work, for the biases of our sources, our colleagues, and our communities can distort our objectivity.

Investigative reporting requires special diligence with respect to fairness. Those involved in such stories should bear in mind that they are more credible when they provide a rich, nuanced account of the topic. Our coverage should avoid simplistic portrayals.

Keep in mind that there is always more than one viewpoint. People or groups that are under attack may refuse to discuss their views, but we should make every effort (and document those efforts) to get that side of the story, even if a refusal is a foregone conclusion. If the subject denies an allegation, that denial should appear in the published article. People who will be shown in an adverse light in an article must be given a meaningful opportunity to defend themselves. This means making a good-faith effort to give the subject of allegations or criticism sufficient time and information to respond substantively. Whenever possible, the reporter should meet face-to-face with the subject in a sincere effort to understand his or her best arguments.

When contacting a subject or a source, reporters and editors should routinely identify themselves and their news organization and state the purpose of their call. Exceptions to this policy should be approved by a senior editor. When interviewing subjects or sources, notetaking is essential. The better the notes, the easier it is to write the story. Many sources welcome the use of a recording device, which can be a valuable aid in verifying facts and quotes. It is impractical, however, to rely on a recorder alone since transcription is time-consuming and recorders can malfunction. A combination of notes and a recorder is usually best. Given the complexity of laws covering the recording of conversations, the legal department should be consulted if there is any uncertainty about its legality. In a majority of states (including New York and the District of Columbia), it is lawful to record a telephone conversation with the consent of only one party to the call—in this instance, the journalist—but in other states (including California) recording a telephone conversation without the consent of all parties is illegal and could subject the person recording the conversation to prosecution. Federal and state laws prohibit the undisclosed recording of telephone calls to which the journalist is not a party.

Reporters and editors should make every effort to authenticate any documents provided by sources in the course of reporting a story. Reporters and photographers who wish to enter private property should not trespass. If a journalist pursuing a story is on private property and is ordered by the owner or owner’s agent to leave, the journalist should leave. Even a place of public accommodation such as a restaurant may be subject to restrictions imposed by owners.

Sourcing for Stories

We are committed to informing readers as completely as possible. We want to make our reporting as transparent as possible so that readers may know how and where we got our information. We should use anonymous sources only when we cannot otherwise provide information we consider reliable and newsworthy. Reporters should make every effort to gather information and conduct interviews that are on the record. When we use an unnamed source, we risk undermining the credibility of the information we are providing. We must be certain in our own minds that the benefit to readers is worth the cost in credibility. These standards are not intended to discourage reporters from cultivating sources who are wary of publicity. Such informants can be invaluable. But the information they provide can often be verified with sources willing to be named, from documents, or both. We should make every effort to obtain such verification.

We should not use such sources to publish material that is trivial, obvious, or self-serving. We should avoid blind quotations whose only purpose is to add color to a story. We should not use pseudonyms without telling the reader why we have done so. We must not mislead readers about the identities of people who appear in our stories. Sources should never be permitted to use the shield of anonymity to voice speculation.

Editors have an obligation to know the identity of unnamed sources used in a story so that editors and reporters can jointly assess the appropriateness of using them. The source for anything that appears in the paper will be known to at least one editor. That source must understand this rule. If the source refuses to accept this rule, the reporter should refuse to accept information from the source. In the case of exceptionally sensitive reporting, the reporter may request that the source’s identity be given solely to the editor in chief. In any case, the editor to whom the information is provided must be in a position to evaluate the credibility of the source—and must be prepared to protect the source’s identity.

An unnamed source should have a compelling reason for insisting on anonymity. Readers and viewers should know why we have decided to grant anonymity to a source. The reporter and editor must be satisfied that the source has a sound factual basis for his or her assertions. We should recognize that some sources quoted anonymously might tend to exaggerate or overreach precisely because they will not be named.

Ground Rules

Journalistic ground rules can be confusing, but our goal is clarity in our dealings with sources, readers, and viewers. Our ground rules should be explained to sources. Readers should be told as much as possible about how we learned the information in our stories. If a source is not on the record, it is important to establish ground rules at the beginning of a conversation. If the interview is recorded, it is preferable that recording also includes discussion of ground rules. We should start virtually all interviews with the presumption that they are on the record. Inexperienced sources—usually ordinary people who unexpectedly find themselves the news—should clearly understand that you are a reporter and should not be surprised to find themselves quoted in your publication.

Journalists should not give the source more protection than is necessary. It is preferable to spell out the nature of the attribution in clear terms instead of using vague and other terms that might be misunderstood. A primer:

  • On the Record—The source can be named and identified by title, rank, job description, or other relevant information. Information can be used in direct quotation or indirect quotation.

  • Background—The quote or information may be used for publication, provided the source is not identified by name. The anonymous source does require some attribution, such as a “senior White House official.” How a source is described in print may be discussed with the source, but the source does not have the final say. We must try to balance our desire to give the reader or viewer as much information as possible about the source while striving to maintain the source’s anonymity. When using this method of sourcing, every effort should be made to acknowledge the source’s possible bias or agenda to help the reader put the information in perspective.

  • Not for Attribution—Same as Background.

  • Deep Background—The information can be used in or to inform a story, and it can lead a journalist to other sources for confirmation. Nonetheless, the source providing information on Deep Background may not be identified in any way. Nor can the reporter say how the information was obtained. Sometimes known as the Lindley Rule (after Newsweek columnist Ernest K. Lindley), Deep Background is a favorite of government officials. It is a tricky category that should be avoided if possible since there is no way to help readers understand where the information is coming from.

  • Off the Record—The quote or information from the source may not be used in a story or for further reporting. The term is dangerous because so many people misuse it. Many sources, including some sophisticated officials, use the term when they really mean “not for attribution to me. “We must be very careful when dealing with sources who say they want to be “off the record. “If they mean “not for attribution to me,” we need to explain the difference and discuss what the attribution will actually be. If they really mean Off the Record as we define the term, then in most circumstances, we should avoid listening to such information at all. Although Off the Record information may help us evaluate other data, we do not want to be hamstrung by a source who tells us something that is in most cases unusable. One alternative to Off the Record is For Guidance. A source may be willing to give us information for our guidance or to prompt further reporting on the understanding that we will not use his comments as the basis for putting something in the paper.

We do not allow sources to change the ground rules governing specific quotations after the fact. Once a quote is on the record, it remains there. Sometimes sources will agree to be interviewed only if we promise to read quotations we plan to use back to the source before they are published. This can create difficult situations. We do not want to allow sources to change what was said in the original interview, but sometimes that cannot be avoided or can be avoided only at the cost of losing an on-the-record quote from an important source. If you find yourself in this gray area, consult with your editor. We don’t “cover the tracks” of anonymous sources by naming them elsewhere in the story and saying they wouldn’t comment. It is preferable to paraphrase comments supplied on background to publishing full quotations from anonymous sources. Personal attacks given on background should never appear in quotes. Reporters and editors should make every effort to confirm background information received from a source with other sources. They should also seek to confirm information gathered from an anonymous source with at least one other source. The second source should have firsthand or direct knowledge of the information. A second source who received the information from the primary source cannot be used to confirm information. A relevant document may serve as a second source. There will be times when we shall decide to publish information from a single, unnamed source, but we shall not do so without satisfying ourselves as to the source’s reliability and the basis for the source’s information. Reporters and editors must understand the risks—legal and to the publication’s reputation—associated with printing a story based on one anonymous source.


Reporters and editors should apply special scrutiny to potentially defamatory or highly sensitive stories based solely on anonymous sources. Although the use of anonymous sources can be necessary and useful, we should rarely go to press with a potentially defamatory or highly sensitive story based solely on one or more confidential sources. Information gained from anonymous sources should be subjected to a level of scrutiny that is at least as rigorous as information obtained from on-the-record sources.

A publication can be sued for breaking a promise to a source. Other than agreeing to protect a source’s name or other identifying details, you should not make promises or representations to a source—such as promising a cover story, assuring positive or favorable treatment, or promising access to a draft of the article prior to publication. As stated above, however, there may be occasions where reading quotes back to a source is permissible.

There is an inevitable tension between cases involving allegations of libel and those involving the need to protect confidential sources. In libel cases, the more notes, the better. But reporters and editors should be extremely careful about how and where they store information that might identify an anonymous source. Most electronic records, including e-mail, can be subpoenaed and retrieved in litigation. Moreover, such records are almost impossible to erase or delete. In addition, journalists’ handwritten notes can also be sought in cases where the publisher is subpoenaed, and it can be very difficult to convince a court that a journalist’s notes or other work products don’t belong to the company. Code names for anonymous sources may help avoid discovery from electronic or handwritten records.

Confidential Source Status

It is our policy not to reveal the name of any source who is not identified by name in the article in question. Our journalists and their sources, however, need to understand that a promise not to publish a source’s name in a story (Not for Attribution or On Background) may be different from a promise of Confidential Source Status, which extends beyond the story. When a journalist promises confidentiality to a source, the journalist is not only making a commitment to the source but also committing the resources of the journalist’s employer, whether a publisher or broadcaster.

Most conversations with unnamed sources are not “confidential.” For the source to qualify as such, the journalist must either expressly promise confidentiality, or the circumstances and content of the conversation must be such that the source would reasonably assume confidentiality. If, for example, a source says, “I could lose my job if the information I am providing is traced back to me,” reporters and editors should assume that the source is confidential.

Although journalists enjoy some legal protection from being compelled to testify about their newsgathering activities and the identities of their sources, we must recognize that the privilege of confidentiality is not absolute. There may be occasions in which the only way to keep a promise of Confidential Source Status is for the reporter to serve a jail term for civil contempt of court and for the journalist’s employer to pay substantial fines. There is also a risk that a court might hold a reporter and the reporter’s employer in criminal contempt of court. A finding of criminal contempt might subject the reporter to a felony conviction. If the employer is a publicly held company or a division of a publicly held company, it might be unable to accept a finding of criminal contempt without obtaining a supporting resolution from the corporation’s board of directors.

In libel cases against a reporter or the reporter’s employer, the refusal to identify a confidential source can result in a judge entering a default judgment against the company.

In general, Confidential Source Status should be reserved for sources who are providing information that is important and in the public interest and who, by doing so, are risking their lives, jobs, or reputations. Reporters should alert editors as early as possible during newsgathering that they are collecting sensitive information from sources who may seek or expect confidentiality. Reporters and editors should refrain from granting Confidential Source Status without the explicit approval, prior to publication, of the publication’s editor in chief. If the editors ultimately decide they cannot grant Confidential Source Status, the reporter or a top editor should inform the source that while we are willing to litigate vigorously to protect our sources, we cannot guarantee confidentiality. If the reporter, editor, and source cannot reach an understanding, the publication cannot publish the information. This procedure is undertaken for the protection of the source as much as the company, and it does not diminish the seriousness of our commitment to protect all our sources.

Reporters and editors should understand that they have no legal or moral right to promise confidentiality to a source beyond what is recognized in the law. Such promises should always be interpreted as “subject to the rule of law.” It is the responsibility of the journalist, as well as the source, to understand that the journalist cannot legally promise more than the law allows. If a journalist expressly promises more than the law allows, the promise is legally ineffective, like any other promise that is contrary to public policy. A journalist who knowingly deceives a source by promising more than the law authorizes should be subject to professional discipline and civil liability to the source.

There may be cases where the law is unclear. It is unclear, for example, whether receipt of classified information is illegal under the Espionage Act and other laws. The importance of the information and the benefit to the public from its publication should provide the basis for deciding whether information should be accepted and published when the law is unclear. If the journalist and his or her employer decide it is legal to receive such information, they should be prepared to litigate the issue and to face jail or fines should they not prevail.

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