Rules of engagement for interviews

February 11, 2013

I’ve been on both sides of a reporter’s microphone. It can be frustrating to subjects when they don’t understand the terms of an interview. So to help, I’m going to propose these as fair rules of engagement.

If there are better, commonly agreed-upon rules that are publicly available somewhere, please point me to them — not private rules that exist only in a manual for employees of a particular publisher, but something that subjects can also read.


On the record: Reporter may report the statement and attribute it to the subject by name.

On background: Reporter may report the statement or sentiment but should take some care to obscure the identity of the subject. This is most often used when somebody could get fired for saying what they’re saying — like leaking the existence of the iWatch. [UPDATE: Some people say “not for attribution,” which to me means you can quote them directly, but not by name.]

Off the record: Reporter may not report the statement, but may use it to inform future reporting on the subject. For instance, the statement may be used to formulate uncomfortable questions during future formal interviews with other subjects.


1. During the course of a formal interview or press event, everything is on the record unless arrangements are made ahead of time, or unless clearly stated by the subject during the interview. (“This part is off the record.” “Please don’t report this.” Etc.) The subject must never assume that the reporter will know when the conversation switches to background or off the record.

i. The definition of a formal interview is any interview that was set up by both parties ahead of time, or that occurs in the context of reporting — for instance if a reporter calls a source and says “I’m working on a story about x. Do you have time to talk about it?” The presence of alcohol or other substances is not relevant to the definition. A formal interview over beers is still a formal interview.

ii. The definition of a press event is a public event where members of the press have been invited in their roles as press rather than as private citizens.

2. During the course of an informal conversation, everything is presumed to be off the record unless the reporter asks to use the statement. At that point, the two parties can decide if the statement is on background or on the record.

3. Once a story is published, it may not be changed unless the subject can show that the reporter did not abide by the prearranged ground rules or misquoted the subject or blatantly misrepresented the subject’s sentiments (e.g., quotes taken totally in the opposite context that they were intended). At that point, retractions or corrections may be issued.

[UPDATE: I got some comments from subjects about not being informed about the true nature of an article, or not being informed that the reporter’s byline was not going to be on the story — that they were simply doing research for another reporter. I think this boils down to a fourth point, which is:

4. Be fair to each other. Reporters should be as clear as possible about the story they’re working on, but subjects should also understand that the reporting sometimes changes the story — that’s the whole point of talking to people to arrive at the closest possible story to the truth.

If anything, these ground rules seem too lenient toward subjects. A lot of reporters will argue that no arrangements should ever be made ahead of time, and that all conversations with newsworthy subjects — even in a private setting — should be on the record, or at the very least usable on background. I think it depends on the context, the subject, the publication, and many other factors. Humans can make different decisions at different times – we’re not robots.

But I would love to get some feedback from other reporters and experienced PR people — am I missing something? Too lenient on subjects? Too harsh? Is there some rule book somewhere that everybody knows about but me?