Most people don’t speak with reporters on a regular basis. You understandably might not know how the process works or what terms like “on background” or “off the record” are supposed to mean. On this page, I’ve answered the most frequent questions I get from sources. My hope is that this information will make you feel empowered if you choose to speak with me for a story. Keep in mind that these are my personal practices and do not necessarily apply to every reporter
I want to share something with you, but I would rather keep my name out of it. Is that okay?
One of the most important ethical principles of my reporting is the concept of informed consent. It’s necessary that sources who speak with me not only give permission for their personal details to be included, but also understand the potential impact of having their name or other information made public on the internet.
I am happy to grant sources anonymity in rare situations, such as when a whistleblowing employee fears they will face reprisal from their employer for speaking out. If you are not a public figure, or you are speaking about something particularly sensitive, I am also generally happy to omit your name. In some instances, I have also agreed only to use a person’s first name to protect their privacy. Before a story is published, I generally talk with sources about how they will be identified.
I want to share information with you, but I don’t want you to publish it. Or, at the very least, I don’t want it to be attached to my name. Can I do that?
If you want to say something, but don’t want me to use it in a story, you can enter into an agreement with me for the conversation (or part of it) to be “off the record.” This means I won’t publish what you say. If you want to go off the record, you need to ask first. Then I can agree to keep the information private. Going “off the record” requires opt-in consent from both parties: We both need to give the go-ahead before information is shared.
If you’re comfortable sharing a piece of information, but don’t want it to be associated with your name, you can also ask to share it “on background.” This usually means you’re okay with me publishing it, but you don’t want the information to be attached to your name—perhaps because you aren’t authorized to talk about it, or for some other reason. If you share something on background, I won’t quote you as having shared it. Going on background is, again, an agreement between two parties.
If we haven’t entered into an agreement for something to be off the record or on background, you can assume it’s “on the record,” meaning I can publish it. You should feel free at any point to ask to go on background or off the record. You can do so in person, on the phone, over email, in a text message, etc.
Please note that something cannot be made “off the record” or “on background” after it has been disclosed. If the aforementioned terms don’t make sense to you, or you want me to explain them personally, you can always ask.
Can you show me what quotes you plan to publish from our conversation? How do I know you won’t misquote me or take my words out of context?
I record most of my interviews and am meticulous about ensuring that I get exact quotes right. It’s embarrassing for a reporter when they mess up, and it’s in my best interest to portray the information you share with me as accurately as possible.
With that said, I can’t share exact quotes ahead of time. Doing so would be a breach of my journalistic ethics. If I show a source the quotes I plan to use, they can potentially shape the narrative of the story in a way that’s unfair to readers.
However, if you are speaking about something technically complicated, or are worried about getting specific details correct, I am happy to go over the facts of what you said before it is published.
How should I contact you? Is there a “secure” way to reach out that can’t be traced?
Most sources reach me via email at lmatsakis [at] Semafor.com You can also direct message me on Twitter here. If your tip is sensitive, you can also reach out using the secure end-to-end encrypted app Signal. You can DM me on Twitter or ask in an email for my number. If you’ve never used Signal, here is a how-to guide from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Please note the app is not a panacea for every privacy woe, but it’s one of the most technically secure ways to communicate.
Last updated: November 21, 2022 (Changed contact email address)