Interview terms

Most interviews journalists do are on the record, especially for broadcast. Seems obvious–after all, we usually show up with a camera! But there may be times when you have to make a deal with a source in order to get any information at all. In that case, you and the source must agree on the ground rules. This glossary of common interviewing terms is designed to help you do that. By the way, not all reporters will agree on these definitions. The important thing is that if a source suggests going “on background” or “off the record” that you both are clear about exactly what that means. You also need to mark your notes carefully as to the basis on which information was obtained. Otherwise, you may find yourself accidentally in breach of promise, and your credibility will be shot.

ATTRIBUTION: Identifying information about the source of material in a story, usually a specific name and/or title.

BACKGROUND: Agreement between reporter and source that information and quotes can be used, but without naming the source. The source can be identified in a general way, however. Examples include: “a knowledgeable analyst” or “one Midwestern Congressman.” This allows the reader, viewer or listener to know something about where the information came from, but not the name of the individual providing it. Generally, when a reporter and source agree to an interview on background, they also work out how the information can be attributed.

CLOSED-ENDED QUESTION: A question that can be answered either yes or no, or in one word. These questions rarely produce useful sound bites.

DEEP BACKGROUND: No direct quotes can be used, and nothing can be attributed. You can paraphrase what you have learned, but you can’t say where you got it. Example: “The police chief is known to believe that…” The information appears to be authoritative, but cannot be traced back to any source. Beware: sources often try to provide information on this basis to send up a trial balloon or when they have an axe to grind.

INFORMED CONSENT: Agreement by a source to the conditions or groundrules for an interview, which have been clearly explained by the reporter. The less experienced the source, the more you need to explain what you plan to do with the information. Be particularly careful that you have explained the possible ramifications of an on camera interview to vulnerable sources and people whose command of English is shaky.

INTERVIEW: Information, opinion or experience shared by a source in conversation with a reporter. The interviewer determines the direction of the questioning.

NOT FOR ATTRIBUTION: Information can be used, but the individual source cannot be named. This usually allows for the indentification of the source in a more specific way than does “background.” For example, instead of “a company official,” you might be able to say, “a Microsoft official.”

OFF THE RECORD: Agreement between reporter and source that nothing the source says will be used in a story. Some reporters use “off the record” information as a road map to seek further information, or as a check on information gathered from other sources. If the same information is provided by a different source “on the record,” then the information can be used and attributed to the second source. But the original source will never be named.

ON THE RECORD: Agreement between reporter and source that anything the source says can be used in a story with complete attribution. This lets the reader, listener or viewer know exactly where the information came from.

OPEN-ENDED QUESTION: A question that cannot be answered simply by saying “yes” or “no.” Examples include: “Why is…” or “How do…” questions. These questions are more likely than closed-ended questions to produce anecdotes and opinions.


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