Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Business Insider’s owner signed a huge OpenAI deal. ChatGPT still won’t credit the site’s biggest scoops
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Nov. 10, 2021, 10:59 a.m.
Reporting & Production
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Laura Hazard Owen   |   November 10, 2021

Companies speaking to reporters — especially tech companies, but they’re by no means the only ones; media companies do it too — like to add information “on background.” That means that the information they provide can be included in the story, but can’t be attributed specifically to them.

Companies often like going on background because it gives them a chance to try to shape the narrative of, or facts reported in, a story, without it being obvious to the reader that they were involved.

The Verge announced Wednesday that it is changing its “background” policy as part of its ethics policy.

— From now on, the default for communications professionals and people speaking to The Verge in an official capacity will be “on the record.”
— We will still honor some requests to be on background, but at our discretion and only for specific reasons that we can articulate to readers.

Tech companies going on background “feeds into the overall distrust of the media, which has dire consequences in our current information,” wrote Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel, “but in practice, it is also hilariously stupid.” He gave some examples:

— More than one big company insists on holding product briefings “on background with no attribution” which means no one can properly report what company executives say about their own new products during marketing events.

— A big tech company PR person emailed us a link to the company’s own website “on background.”

— A food delivery company insisted on discussing the popularity of chicken wings on background.

— Multiple big tech companies insist on having PR staffers quoted as “sources familiar with the situation” even though they are paid spokespeople for the most powerful companies in the world.

— A large recruiting company claimed it was an unethical double standard for us to attribute a statement to their spokesperson because we asked the company to respond to allegations from former employees who spoke to us anonymously.

— A big tech company refused to detail a controversial new privacy policy on the record, allowing it to amend details about it in repeated background follow-up briefings for over a week.

— A big tech company insisted on describing the upgrade requirements for its new operating system on background. Details which it then repeatedly changed … on background.

— A major car company’s head of communications told us an April Fools’ joke was actually real on background. The joke was not real.

— A major platform’s head of communications would only explain a content moderation decision attributed to “a source familiar,” tried to refute our characterization of that decision after we published, and then threatened to cut our reporter off from further communication.

— A big tech company sent us a statement “on the record” with the caveat that it could not be attributed to a specific individual.

— A major delivery company spokesperson, asked when the company would be profitable, insisted that the following statement only be paraphrased on background: “We’re investing in the enormous opportunity to enable omnichannel commerce for local businesses.”

— A major video game company gave a briefing “on background.” After we used that information in our story, attributing it to the company generally, a PR person tried to renegotiate what “on background” meant after the fact to avoid any attribution whatsoever, even going so far as to imply to our reporter that her editor had agreed to change specific sentences. (The editor had agreed to nothing of the sort.)

The Markup, the data-driven investigative nonprofit run by Julia Angwin, doesn’t enter into conversations on background, as a matter of policy. Angwin explained why last year:

We tell every company that we contact for a comment that we need an on-the-record statement, and if they can’t provide one, we will not use any comment at all.

Not only that, but we also require that official spokespeople — who are paid to speak on behalf of their companies, after all—attach their name to their statements. We don’t publish company statements that a person would not, for some mysterious reason, want to attach to their name.

Our reasoning is simple: anonymity isn’t standard; it is a privilege that should be born only out of necessity. We reserve anonymity for people who could face retaliation or undue hardship for the information that they are providing us in the public interest. Corporate spokespeople who are paid to provide information simply don’t meet the criteria for being granted anonymity.

Show tags
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Business Insider’s owner signed a huge OpenAI deal. ChatGPT still won’t credit the site’s biggest scoops
“We are…deeply worried that despite this partnership, OpenAI may be downplaying rather than elevating our works,” Business Insider’s union wrote in a letter to management.
How Newslaundry worked with its users to make its journalism more accessible
“If you’re doing it, do it properly. Don’t just add a few widgets, or overlay products and embeds, and call yourself accessible.”
How YouTube’s recommendations pull you away from news
Plus: News participation is declining, online and offline; making personal phone calls could help with digital-subscriber churn; and partly automated news videos seem to work with audiences.