A “backgrounder” is an off-the-record briefing for members of the media. Reporters are free to report on what they learn at a background briefing but normally are restricted as to how they cite their sources. Merriam Webster says that the term was first used in 1942.
Government officials give background briefings in order to announce, for example, new legislative proposals or new developments in foreign relations. International organizations (like the World Bank or the IMF) also give background briefings. So do advocacy groups and think tanks announcing new developments in their field, and businesses launching new products.
Like a pen and pad briefing, a background briefing is never filmed or broadcast; its purpose is to inform reporters only. Some backgrounders allow reporters to join by phone or video link, while others are live. Briefers are normally given anonymity; in articles about the briefing, they’re cited as “administration officials” or similarly. Depending on the briefers’ preferences, journalists may not be allowed to use direct quotes in their reporting.
The term backgrounder could also refer to the packet of research and/or photos sent to reporters to give them information on a given topic. That background information is sometimes referred to as a white paper. And the term backgrounder is sometimes used to mean an “explainer” piece run in a newspaper. In that case, the backgrounder is a long-form article meant to give readers context on an ongoing issue in the news.
Advocacy groups and think tanks often publish their own backgrounders, which are meant to provide foundational information on a little-known issue. However, these reports can also reflect the bias or narrow focus of the groups which produce them
Political reporters are often critical of background briefings, which are perceived as a way for the government to “spin” the media. Writing in the Atlantic in 2015, Ron Fournier complained that reporters were too willing to let public relations teams guide their coverage of politics, business, and sports.
Fournier argued that background briefings allow the government to get their messages into the press without having to stand behind what they say. Because officials are speaking anonymously, they never have to take public responsibility for the things they’ve said. Fournier wrote,
“Of the many ways that modern journalists cede power to authority, none is easier to fix than the notion that government officials are allowed to gather several reporters in a room or on a conference call, spew their clever lines of lies and spin, and declare it all “on background”—shielded from accountability “on condition of anonymity.”
Writing in the Washington Post, Paul Farhi also noted that background briefings are a way for the government to control the news cycle. Not only do officials impose rules about reporting, they also handpick the journalists allowed to attend their briefings, which creates an incentive for journalists to try and stay on officials’ good side.
Farhi wrote, “White House reporters tend to view the background briefings as a kind of mixed blessing. While they bristle at the rules, they say the briefings occasionally generate useful information they wouldn’t learn another way. Quoting a senior official without identifying him is imperfect, they acknowledge, but better than nothing.”