This weekend’s look at the sausage-making of White House reporting provides an instructive example on the risks of going off the record or on background with media.
After White House doctors gave an upbeat assessment of President Trump’s health as he was being treated for COVID-19, an anonymous official gave a contradictory report that Trump’s condition was “very concerning.” Some journalists refused to identify the official, but other reporters revealed it was White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.
The opposing approaches involved important journalistic tenets and provide some communications lessons to consider.
- First, reporters regularly agree to anonymous sourcing to get critical information they couldn’t get otherwise. These tactics are certainly justified when reporting on the most consequential news on the planet and given that presidential health has been the subject of frequent cover ups across history.
- Reporters, especially in Washington, agree to anonymous sourcing far too often, sometimes allowing presidents themselves to go on background. But once they agree to ground rules, reporters are bound to protect their source, even to the point of incarceration. Reporters covering Meadows’ remarks admirably stuck by their agreement.
- Other reporters not party to that agreement saw a duty to out the source, which was easy enough since Meadows was speaking on camera. Those journalists concluded the identity of the source itself was a salient fact the public had a right to know.
The lesson is that sourcing agreements are always in danger of falling apart, even outside the massive pressure of the White House. When tempted to go on background or off the record, know the risks, use it only carefully and fully understand journalistic ethics. Your first goal must always be revealing the truth.