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January 19, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 10:56am

Why tech journalists have told PRs off-the-record briefings are out of order

By Andrew Kersley

Leading tech publications have banned PR officers from having “on background” briefings with journalists because they believe companies are abusing the convention to undermine their reporting.

The move follows allegations of tech PRs doing everything from using background briefings to share an April Fools joke in a misleading way to telling outright falsehoods.

Last week, global tech magazine Wired announced plans to make all comments made by company spokespeople on the record by default making it the third major outlet after Quartz and The Verge to do so.

Announcing the change, Wired told tech PRs: “The companies you speak for play significant roles in shaping the future; we have a responsibility to tell our readers how we got the information about your plans to shape it.”

The outlets, which are all US-based but also target a UK audience, say  companies would regularly email information “on background” to journalists without getting their consent first.

“On background” tends to mean that journalists can use the information, but cannot say where it came from.

The Verge was the first major tech publication to publicly enact the policy.

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Founder and editor in chief of the title Nilay Patel told Press Gazette: “We had been talking about it for a year or more, that we needed this policy.

“We saw that the requests for background from tech companies, in particular, were escalating to the point of absurdity.”

He told Press Gazette the outlet was promised off the record that there were serious plans for Volkswagen to change its name to “Voltswagen” to celebrate electric vehicles, only for the company to later reveal it was an April Fool’s Joke.

He also said phone companies would offer information on new specs for an upcoming release off the record, only to later change them and make The Verge look like it made an error.

In one recent deep-dive by the title into the future of food delivery, tech companies refused to speak on the record about why people liked ordering chicken wings so much.

“That one really got me,” recalled Patel. “The level of absurdity there. There’s no stakes to the story.”

He told Press Gazette that background conversations meant companies could give contradictory statements or change their mind on issues, and The Verge would be the one suffering the public fallout.

Chris Stokel-Walker, a freelance tech journalist and regular contributor to Wired, told Press Gazette: “Nine times out of ten, whenever I write to a tech company for comment on a story, I know that I will end up with an incredibly bland statement that is not related to the story in question.

“And then on background, you’ll get sometimes 20 big bullet points with what is actually quite a nuanced, interesting response… It just makes reporting very, very boring.”

He added: “It doesn’t cut off the knees of your reporting, but it can often be used as a sort of death by 1,000 cuts, trying to correct things tech companies call wrong but aren’t actually.”

The Verge announced its change of policy to make all conversations with PRs on the record by default on 10 November last year, promising to reset the expectations of the industry “as loudly as possible”.

Heather Landy, the executive editor of business-focused publication Quartz, soon wanted to follow suit. She told Press Gazette: “I just read it, and I agreed with it. And I immediately thought we really should make this standard.”

Landy added: “These things need to be negotiated. They can’t be dictated to us. It sets a bad precedent. The next thing I know, you’re forcing me to sign non-disclosure agreements when I come to your headquarters.”

Patel and Landy said that both The Verge and Quartz had wanted to do something about questionable behaviour from spokespeople at big companies for a long time.

Both also said that since making the changes months ago, there has been little to no negative response from big companies. And in many cases, it improved the quality of The Verge’s reporting, according to Patel.

The changes have come amid rising levels of cynicism about the behaviour of tech giants. Earlier this month, Wired editor-in-chief Gideon Lichfield wrote that the once techno-optimist publication has had to redefine its outlook.

However the problem appears to go much deeper than just tech journalism, and the hope of those Press Gazette heard from is that such changes might make others rethink their approach to sources and reset the relationship for PRs and journalists across the industry.

Patel and Landy cited politics, business and sports journalism as three other areas where off-the-record briefings from officials were rife and undermined the public’s already declining trust in the media.

“I also just had someone reach out to me last week from a regional paper in the Northeast US,” said Landy. “He wanted to know more about it because he was having similar issues with government sources in the city where he is.”

According to the most recent YouGov survey, just 36% of those polled said they trust the UK news media while 29% of Americans trust “most news most of the time”.

[Read More: Trust in UK news media boosted since pandemic but still lower than pre EU referendum]

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