Below are excerpts from
the Off-the-Record chapter of
the News Media
Copyright © 2005, 2001, 1999, 1996
By Clarence Jones
Tactics for Leaking So
Plumbers Canít Find the Source
A crucial skill for the media game is knowing how to
successfully leak information. It happens every day in politics, government, and
the corporate world.
Suppose your competitor has a major skeleton in the
closet. If the media wrote about the skeleton, the competitor would be
embarrassed or eliminated. But the media will never know about it unless
somebody tips them off.
Tips Have Many Uses
Confidential leaks have other uses:
To brief reporters in advance, so they can
produce better stories
To negotiate for the delay of a story
To correct a wrong when the system seems
powerless or disinterested
To bring reporters into an investigation, so
theyíll feel more personally invested and put more effort into their
To bring an outsider in as an observer when
you feel vulnerable and overpowered
When I begin to talk about off-the-record skills,
occasionally an officer in one of my law enforcement seminars frowns at that
"Iíd never do that," the officer says.
"Iím not a snitch."
Cops consider informers a necessary evil. They donít
respect them. Thatís because informers are usually the kind of people who
should be in jail. But to catch bigger fish, you have to give the informer a
"walk." Like hit-man "Sammy the Bull," who was given
immunity for testifying against mob boss John Gotti.
Snitch = Traitor
Many in law enforcement think of informers as
traitors who turn against people who trusted them. Theyíll sell their mothers
if the price is right.
Information from an informer is always suspect. It is
being sold ó bartered ó and the informer frequently enlarges the truth to
improve the bargaining position.
Media Sources Different
Confidential sources who leak to reporters, however,
are usually very different kinds of people, with very different motives.
As an investigative reporter, I made off-the-record
agreements with dope smugglers, gamblers, con men, bagmen, prostitutes and
murderers. But they were the exception.
My most frequent sources of confidential information
were whistle-blowers. Conscientious cops, doctors, lawyers or government
officials who became completely frustrated with injustice or incompetence and
the systemís failure to cope with it.
Setting the Agenda
They went outside the system, and their leak of
information to me often led to stories that brought about sudden changes in the
system. Prosecutors who had been blind to certain types of activity suddenly
began personal crusades.
The chapter continues with accounts of real-life
investigations that could not have been possible without confidential sources;
the risks for those who leak and get caught; and the many variations of
I recommend that you abandon the term off-the-record,
and say instead, "Iíd like to tell you something in confidence." The
reporter will usually say, "What do you mean by that?" Then you begin
to negotiate the terms on which you will release the information, and what the
reporter can do with it. Go over, step-by-step, your joint agreement on exactly
what you expect of each other.
Variations of the contract:
You may use the information Iím about to give
you in any way you choose, so long as you are very careful not to quote me
directly, or to even hint where it came from. This kind of information is
often attributed to a "confidential source" or a "highly
You can indicate my organization or group. The
storyís credibility is increased if the source is less vague. "A
confidential source in the police department." Or "a highly-placed
executive in a major oil company."
You must agree to hold the story until a later
time. "I want you to be aware of this," you say, "Because I
know youíll need to do some advance work." Lengthy police
investigations are often leaked in advance to the media on this basis.
Television, particularly, needs extra time to create visuals.
You may use this information if you can confirm
it with another source. This involves a lot of trust on your part. It is
usually used if you think very few people know, and the story would
immediately point the finger at you as the source. The information may be
more widespread then you realize.
Backgrounding. "I want
you to be aware of some things that are happening. In the next few days or
weeks, a story will break, and then youíll understand the importance of
what Iím about to tell you. You cannot disclose I briefed you."
No quotes. "You may use everything Iím
about to tell you, and use my name, so long as you donít quote me
directly. You must paraphrase what I say." This is a protection for the
source, in case there is bad public reaction to a trial balloon. "Thatís
not exactly what I said. Let me clarify."
You may never attribute
anything to me unless I specifically give you permission. This is a
time-saving device if you have a continuing confidential relationship with a
reporter. There is an ongoing contract every time you talk.
The chapter continues with other precautions and
examples of how difficult it can be to negotiate this kind of agreement.
Here are five broad rules that you should review when
you make a confidential source agreement with a reporter:
You must know and trust the reporter
Does the reporter have authority to make the
How many others will know the information or
How far will the reporter go to protect you?
The exact words to be used in referring to the
The chapter explains in detail each of the
guidelines, with examples, and why each is so important in protecting the
identity of the source. It explores the legal problems for reporters who
are later sued for publishing or broadcasting a defamatory story when they
cannot disclose their sources, and offers some solutions to those problems.
The chapter explains the value of anonymous calls and letters; how to avoid
being detected if you use them, and several other techniques for getting
information to a reporter in a way that cannot be traced.
How to get your
copy of Winning with the News Media