Why Are People Dumb About Talking to Reporters?

Chatterbox wrote last week that many misunderstandings between journalists and sources are attributable to the fact that nobody knows the meaning of most journalistic jargon used to describe sourcing agreements. (See “For the Record, What ‘Off the Record’ Means.”) To demonstrate this point, Chatterbox polled five journalists at The Washington Post. Sure enough, they gave widely divergent definitions for “background,” “deep background,” and “off the record.” (The only good news was that they all agreed about the meaning of “not for attribution.”) Since then, Chatterbox has been asked repeatedly what the “correct” definitions of these terms are. These inquiries miss Chatterbox’s point. When the meaning of professional jargon isn’t understood by people within that profession–indeed, by people at the top of that profession–then that professional jargon can’t be said to have any “correct” definition. Chatterbox thinks it would be a pity if the result of his Postie poll were a memo from the top brass at The Washington Post to all editorial staff “explaining” once and for all what the various sourcing terms mean. What good would that do? The rest of Washington, including the Posties’ sources–indeed, the rest of the world–would still be acting on its own various and conflicting notions about what these terms mean. No, the only good solution is to stop using the jargon altogether, and for journalists to work out attribution agreements with sources in plain English, one at a time.

Chatterbox knows a lot of reporters who do this already, or who use only the shorthand term, “not for attribution,” since this expression is hard to misunderstand. In Chatterbox’s experience, it is usually the source, not the reporter, who introduces confusing sourcing jargon into negotiations about attribution. This, of course, makes no sense. It’s the reporter who benefits from the jargon, because it’s the reporter who wants to maintain maximum flexibility about how to use the information he collects; confusion about what the bargain is helps to increase that flexibility. The source, on the other hand, can only be harmed by any ambiguity about what the bargain is. Why, then, do sources insist on using the jargon?

Chatterbox has a few theories about this. One is that being contacted by a reporter is such a testament to one’s importance, even when the specific questions are unwelcome, that the source feels compelled to show that he’s sophisticated, a “player.” Another theory has to do with a usually unspoken communication that passes from source to reporter. This can be summed up as, “Get me in trouble and I will never talk to you again.” If the source really is someone the reporter will likely need again, the reporter will go the extra mile to protect the source’s identity above and beyond whatever formal deal was struck. If, on the other hand, the source is someone the reporter isn’t likely to need again, the reporter will protect the source’s identity only so far as the formal agreement requires. For the type of source most likely to be contacted by a reporter–a government official, maybe a corporate big shot–the possibility that you’re a less-than-vital conduit for information is too, too, humiliating to acknowledge, even to yourself.

Why do people speak to reporters at all? Chatterbox is fully aware that there are many rational reasons: to get the truth out, to get a lie out, to force a reporter writing a hostile piece to consider your side of the story, to help a reporter writing a friendly piece to get every last flattering detail right. Chatterbox, a working reporter, certainly isn’t going to argue that people should talk less to journalists. However, he is curious about whatever darker psychological motives are at work. He therefore makes the following request to readers: Please pass along cites for good psychological studies (as opposed to journalism-school or political-science studies premised on conscious rational behavior) that explain why people like talking to journalists so much. As always, tips on Web-available research would be especially appreciated.