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This article was published on May 19, 2015

    ‘Not for attribution’ quotes are tech reporting’s dirty little secret

    ‘Not for attribution’ quotes are tech reporting’s dirty little secret
    Mic Wright
    Story by

    Mic Wright

    Reporter, TNW

    Mic Wright is a journalist specialising in technology, music and popular culture. He lives in Dublin. He is on Twitter at @brokenbottleboy. Mic Wright is a journalist specialising in technology, music and popular culture. He lives in Dublin. He is on Twitter at @brokenbottleboy.

    This is not for attribution but the habit among tech companies of refusing to publicly comment on anything from big issues to minor feature updates is out of hand. As a reader, you’re not explicitly clued into when it happens, but you can probably detect it.

    When a publication tells you it “understands” something is going to happen/not happen, that almost always means a PR person has told them that, on the understanding that it will be “not for attribution.” There are ghosts in the machine and they work for PR agencies.

    Here’s a made-up example of what one of those emails looks like:

    On background, not attributable to me or Monkeytennis: Our product team is aware of this incident, and is going to continue working to improve both our ad related policies and the process we have in place to review our ads.

    Even writing this post will cause me problems in the future. There’s a cosy understanding in many areas of journalism that writers will incorporate a company’s line into a piece without revealing where it came from. In the past few years, that’s become more and more common in the tech press.

    There are writers who are well known to be favored by particular companies as conduits for putting opinions out into the world without having to see a spokesperson’s name tied to them.

    Some outlets have even got a reputation over the years as the chosen venues for targeted leaks – for a long time The Wall Street Journal’s rumor reports tracked very closely to what Apple eventually launched.

    My theory is that the “not for attribution” approach has become more common as tech companies of all sizes have begun to hire PR operatives from the world of politics. The political world runs on anonymous briefings and unattributed quotes. Tech reporting has simply been catching up.

    That’s a problem because readers aren’t privy to the whole story. You’re not allowed to see how the sausage is made or who’s providing particular flavors to the mix. I’d like to say that we’ll reject quotes from PR people demanding that they be incorporated into stories unattributed, but to bring you news on the tech giants, that’s ultimately impossible.

    All I can say is, watch closely to see which companies tend to be tied to stories where reporters “understand” that something is happening or have “learned” things from unnamed individuals. Those are the ones who aren’t willing to make their arguments in public.

    Image credit: Shutterstock 

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