Transparency is critical to our credibility with the public and our subscribers. Whenever possible, we pursue information on the record. When a newsmaker insists on background or off-the-record ground rules, we must adhere to a strict set of guidelines, enforced by AP news managers.
Under AP's rules, material from anonymous sources may be used only if:
1. The material is information and not opinion or speculation, and is vital to the report.
2. The information is not available except under the conditions of anonymity imposed by the source.
3. The source is reliable, and in a position to have direct knowledge of the information.
Reporters who intend to use material from anonymous sources must get approval from their news manager before sending the story to the desk. The manager is responsible for vetting the material and making sure it meets AP guidelines. The manager must know the identity of the source, and is obligated, like the reporter, to keep the source's identity confidential. Only after they are assured that the source material has been vetted by a manager should editors and producers allow it to be used.
Reporters should proceed with interviews on the assumption they are on the record. If the source wants to set conditions, these should be negotiated at the start of the interview. At the end of the interview, the reporter should try once again to move onto the record some or all of the information that was given on a background basis.
The AP routinely seeks and requires more than one source when sourcing is anonymous. Stories should be held while attempts are made to reach additional sources for confirmation or elaboration. In rare cases, one source will be sufficient – when material comes from an authoritative figure who provides information so detailed that there is no question of its accuracy.
We must explain in the story why the source requested anonymity. And, when it’s relevant, we must describe the source's motive for disclosing the information. If the story hinges on documents, as opposed to interviews, the reporter must describe how the documents were obtained, at least to the extent possible.
The story also must provide attribution that establishes the source's credibility; simply quoting "a source" is not allowed. We should be as descriptive as possible: "according to top White House aides" or "a senior official in the British Foreign Office." The description of a source must never be altered without consulting the reporter.
We must not say that a person declined comment when that person the person is already quoted anonymously. And we should not attribute information to anonymous sources when it is obvious or well known. We should just state the information as fact.
Stories that use anonymous sources must carry a reporter's byline. If a reporter other than the bylined staffer contributes anonymous material to a story, that reporter should be given credit as a contributor to the story.
All complaints and questions about the authenticity or veracity of anonymous material – from inside or outside the AP – must be promptly brought to the news manager's attention.
Not everyone understands “off the record” or “on background” to mean the same things. Before any interview in which any degree of anonymity is expected, there should be a discussion in which the ground rules are set explicitly.
These are the AP’s definitions:
On the record. The information can be used with no caveats, quoting the source by name.
Off the record. The information cannot be used for publication. Background. The information can be published but only under conditions negotiated with the source. Generally, the sources do not want their names published but will agree to a description of their position. AP reporters should object vigorously when a source wants to brief a group of reporters on background and try to persuade the source to put the briefing on the record.
Deep background. The information can be used but without attribution. The source does not want to be identified in any way, even on condition of anonymity.
In general, information obtained under any of these circumstances can be pursued with other sources to be placed on the record.
ANONYMOUS SOURCES IN MATERIAL FROM OTHER NEWS SOURCES
Reports from other news organizations based on anonymous sources require the most careful scrutiny when we consider them for our report.
AP's basic rules for anonymous source material apply to material from other news outlets just as they do in our own reporting: The material must be factual and obtainable no other way. The story must be truly significant and newsworthy. Use of anonymous material must be authorized by a manager. The story we produce must be balanced, and comment must be sought.
Further, before picking up such a story we must make a bona fide effort to get it on the record, or, at a minimum, confirm it through our own reporting. We shouldn't hesitate to hold the story if we have any doubts. If another outlet’s anonymous material is ultimately used, it must be attributed to the originating news organization and note its description of the source.
Anything in the AP news report that could reasonably be disputed should be attributed. We should give the full name of a source and as much information as needed to identify the source and explain why the person s credible. Where appropriate, include a source's age; title; name of company, organization or government department; and hometown. If we quote someone from a written document – a report, email or news release -- we should say so. Information taken from the internet must be vetted according to our standards of accuracy and attributed to the original source. File, library or archive photos, audio or videos must be identified as such. For lengthy stories, attribution can be contained in an extended editor's note detailing interviews, research and methodology.