Attribution (journalism)

In journalism attribution is the identification of the source of reported information. Journalists' ethical codes normally address the issue of attribution, which is sensitive because in the course of their work journalists may receive information from sources who wish to remain anonymous. In investigative journalism important news stories often depend on such information. For example, the Watergate scandal that lead to the downfall of U.S. President Richard Nixon was in part exposed by information revealed by an anonymous source ("Deep Throat") to investigative reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.


Divulging the identity of a confidential source is frowned upon by groups representing journalists in many democracies [1] ( [2] ( [3] ( In some jurisdictions journalists can be compelled by law to identify their sources, and journalists can and have been jailed for upholding this principle.

There are several reasons to protect confidential sources:

  • In some cases serious harm might befall the source if their identity is uncovered.
  • The willingness of other potential sources to share information with reporters may be eroded if confidential sources are identified.
  • The public perception of journalistic integrity is damaged when assurances about confidentiality are breached.
  • The so-called "chilling effect," which serves to dissuade sources in the future from stepping forward with unknown information for fear of reprimand or retaliation.

"Speaking Terms"

There are several categories of "speaking terms" (agreements concerning attribution) that cover information conveyed in conversations with journalists. In the UK the following conventions are generally accepted:

  • "On-the-record": all that is said can be quoted and attributed.
  • "Unattributable": what is said can be reported but not attributed.
  • "Off-the-record": the information is provided to inform a decision or provide a confidential explanation, not for publication.

However, confusion (in the minds of journalists and others) over the precise meaning of "unattributable" and "off-the-record" has lead to more detailed formulations:

  • "Chatham House Rule(s)"[4] ( So called after the Royal Institute of International Affairs who first introduced the rule in 1927, now in widespread use:
    • "When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed; nor may it be mentioned that the information was received at a meeting of the Institute."
  • "Lobby Terms"[5] ( in the UK accredited journalists are allowed in to the otherwise restricted Parliamentary Press Gallery on the basis that information received there is never attributed and events there are not reported. "Lobby terms" are agreed to extend this arrangement to cover discussions that take place elsewhere.
  • "Not for attribution" (as described by the Canadian Association of Journalists). The comments may be quoted directly, but the source may only be identified in general terms (e.g., "a government insider"). In practice such general descriptions may be agreed with the interviewee.
  • "On background "(Canadian Association of Journalists). The thrust of the briefing may be reported (and the source characterized in general terms as above) but direct quotes may not be used.
  • 'Deep background' This term is used in the U.S., though not consistently. Most journalists would understand "deep background" to mean that the information may not be included in the article but is used by the journalist to enhance his or view of the subject matter, or to act as a guide to other leads or sources. Most deep background information is confirmed elsewhere before being reported.

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