Thursday, November 11, 2021

On “On Background”

Nilay Patel (tweet):

The Verge is updating our public ethics policy to be clearer in our interactions with public relations and corporate communications professionals. We’re doing this because big tech companies in particular have hired a dizzying array of communications staff who routinely push the boundaries of acceptable sourcing in an effort to deflect accountability, pass the burden of truth to the media, and generally control the narratives around the companies they work for while being annoying as hell to deal with.


• A big tech company PR person emailed us a link to the company’s own website “on background.”


• A big tech company refused to detail a controversial new privacy policy on the record, allowing it to amend details about it in repeated background follow-up briefings for over a week.

• A big tech company insisted on describing the upgrade requirements for its new operating system on background. Details which it then repeatedly changed… on background.


This list could go on and on — the clear pattern is that tech companies have uniformly adopted a strategy of obfuscating information behind background.

Rory Cellan-Jones:

It’s got so absurd that I have had PRs tell me “on deep background” bland stuff that’s already in a press release

Brian Merchant (via David Zarzycki):

“On background” has been a scourge throughout my career. Every single conversation I have had with a big-five tech company representative this year has been on background. It has become the default method by which Silicon Valley disseminates information to reporters.

This is a toxic arrangement. The tactic shields tech companies from accountability. It allows giants like Amazon and Tesla an opportunity to transmit their preferred message, free of risk, in the voice of a given publication. It leaves no trace of policy that might later be criticized—that could form part of the public record to be scrutinized by regulators, lawyers, or investors. If the company later reverses course or modifies its position, the egg is on the reporter’s face, not the company’s.

Corporations such as Apple, Google, and Uber have become infamous for their secrecy and unwillingness to comment on most matters on the record. And tech reporters, myself very much included, have not done enough to push them to do otherwise.

Update (2022-01-17): Wired:

Many powerful companies make a practice of obfuscating or dodging accountability when speaking to media outlets by providing information while insisting it not be attributed to anyone in particular, and sometimes not even to the company itself. For that reason, WIRED is joining the Verge, Quartz, and others in making its editorial standards clearer.

3 Comments RSS · Twitter

So Big Tech purposely mislead, or mingle with Media, while pointing the finger at social media for spreading fake news. Hypocrisy as usual?

It's almost as if power corrupts

This reminds me of a discussion I had with my younger brother. He really likes space news and he was talking about how nowadays it's the YouTubers that get front seat at launches, and who gets to interview Elon and that Amazon dude. He was fine with that since he's mainly interested in reporting, not journalism.

No YouTuber with a space channel will ask Elon about how space exploration relates to colonialism, or if the depiction of living on Mars in Ad Astra felt realistic.

Same as no Apple blogger will ask tough questions of the top dudes at Apple if he ever gets the chance to interview them. You get reporting, uncritical at best, and fawning at worst.

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