"The Scourge of “On Background” in Silicon Valley"

Oct 3, 2020 at 12:00 Hello friends,

This week, Amazon sent an email to reporters defending its safety record. The company, in the wake of an investigation by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting about rising injury rates at its warehouses, wanted to refute the article’s findings.

Amazon did so by emailing a group of reporters an unsolicited statement that reporters could “attribute to Amazon.” The statement, from “Amazon” claimed that Reveal had misinterpreted the company’s injury data (while providing no additional data to counter it).

The email also contained a section labeled “On Background Regarding Reveal” that blasted the newsroom as “an advocacy organization focused on government transparency and pro-union activity” and claimed that “they don’t practice objective journalism.”

For those not familiar with the journalism term of art, “on background” generally means the information can’t be attributed to the source.

Going on background is important during journalistic investigations into events like the Watergate break-ins, when public officials were providing information to reporters that could get them fired or worse but that they thought the public should know.

But providing information “on background” is widespread in Silicon Valley by officials speaking in an official capacity, which is nothing like people who ask to remain anonymous during interviews because they’re revealing facts their employer wouldn’t want them to reveal. Apple and Google, for instance, provided most of their early plans for their COVID-19 contact-tracing app through “on background” press releases and “on background” phone briefings with tech press.

The fact that Amazon felt it was appropriate to blast out an email lambasting the credibility of an award-winning investigative nonprofit newsroom shows just how comfortable tech companies have become with the “on background” game. Journalists so often comply with tech companies’ insistence that information be supplied only “on background,” that Amazon officials apparently felt that a behind-the-scenes attack trying to discredit a respected news outlet wouldn’t come back to bite them.

However, in this case, Reveal Managing Editor Andy Donohoe posted screenshots of the full Amazon email on his Twitter thread and rebutted Amazon’s allegations. (Well, to be sure, he did admit to being in favor of government transparency).

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.

We, at The Markup, did not receive the Amazon email (we’re not sad). And perhaps one reason for that is that we decided early on that we would not participate in “on background” conversations with company officials and spokespeople. We tell every company that we contact for a comment that we need an on-the-record statement, and if they can’t provide one, we will not use any comment at all.

Not only that, but we also require that official spokespeople—who are paid to speak on behalf of their companies, after all—attach their name to their statements. We don’t publish company statements that a person would not, for some mysterious reason, want to attach to their name.

Our reasoning is simple: anonymity isn’t standard; it is a privilege that should be born only out of necessity. We reserve anonymity for people who could face retaliation or undue hardship for the information that they are providing us in the public interest. Corporate spokespeople who are paid to provide information simply don’t meet the criteria for being granted anonymity.

And yet, many corporate spokespeople are offended by our policies and sometimes try to insist on anonymity. As The Markup Investigative Reporter Adrianne Jeffries recounts:

These practices are so widespread that most spokespeople will assume it’s fine, and feel betrayed if you remind them that you haven’t agreed to any rules about attribution.

One spokesperson was very combative and kept trying to talk me into going off the record, sort of switching persuasion tactics for about 15 minutes. He tried hinting that he had something juicy to tell me off the record, then started yelling at me, telling me this is how it works and I don’t know what I’m doing, and asking to speak to my editor. Finally I cut the conversation off and said I would prefer to move to email, and that’s how we’ve communicated (all on the record) ever since.

It’s sometimes a quixotic battle, but we pursue it because we are committed to providing as much transparency about our work as possible. It’s in line with our “Show Your Work” practice – which involves publishing the data we use, the code we use to analyze it and detailed methodologies that have been reviewed by experts.

And we believe that this policy can lead to better and more precise responses from spokespeople, when they realize that they will have to stand behind what they say. As The Markup Investigative Data Journalist Jon Keegan recounts:

I had requested a comment from Google regarding a particular peptides video on YouTube, and if it was considered a violation of their policies. The spokesperson who responded said “Thanks for your email. On background, ok to paraphrase, this video does not violate our policies.”

I then responded to inform him of our real name policy and linked to examples where we did this for Amazon and Facebook.

He then wrote back with a much more complete statement with actual policy information:

“We have strict policies that prohibit content that shows how to use steroids for recreational purposes or content encouraging users to ingest harmful substances and we quickly remove videos when flagged by our users. Upon reviewing the video, we have determined it does not violate our Community Guidelines.”

The first response felt like someone answering the door in their sweatpants, where the statement that his name was going to appear next to was dressed up to appear in public.

And that’s what we aim to deliver to you, dear reader: complete information that’s professionally dressed and ready for the spotlight.

Thanks, as always, for reading.


Julia Angwin


The Markup

-"The Scourge of “On Background” in Silicon Valley"