Why ‘Off the Record’ is a High-Wire Act Best Avoided
By Hennes Communications
Q: A reporter wants to interview me, and I don’t want to be identified as the source of the information. What do I do?
A: The reporter’s goal is to interview you with no strings attached – everything you say and do can be reported. This is called “on the record” and it is how a reporter will approach every interview.
The basic guideline is this: Everything is on the record unless both parties to the conversation agree that it is not. Also, reporters are never off-duty. From the moment they arrive on the scene, until the moment they drive away, everything you do and say can be reported on. So, simply, if you don’t want to see it in print, on the web or on TV – don’t say or do it. That’s the only way you can positively guarantee it won’t be printed or broadcast.
There may be rare times that, for the good of you or your organization, you’d like to negotiate limiting the scope of the interview. For instance, maybe you don’t want to be identified in the story, maybe you want the information to be “off the record,” or maybe you just want to provide the reporter with background information about the issue. All this can be negotiated with the reporter, but each must be negotiated specifically before the interview. Here are some basic guidelines and facts to consider when you are dealing with a reporter and how you’ll be identified.
- Make sure both sides know and understand the terms. Don’t assume that “off the record” or “not for attribution” or “on background” means the same to the reporter as it does to you. These terms can vary from reporter to reporter and news operation to news operation. If you’re going to try this, make sure everyone is absolutely clear on the terms and agrees to them.
- Consider bringing the reporter’s editor or producer into the conversation, especially to set the terms. That way, one more person is aware of how this should go – and it’s a person higher up in the newsroom.
- In many newsrooms, sometimes depending on the sensitivity of the story, reporters aren’t empowered to grant off the record privileges to a source. Those decisions must be approved by a high-level editor or newsroom leader. National Public Radio, for example, says: “Individual NPR journalists – reporters, producers, bloggers and others – do not on their own have the authority to assure any individual that information he gives us anonymously will be reported on our airwaves or by NPR.org.” (See NPR’s sourcing guidelines here.)
- Many news organizations require reporters to include a valid reason a person is permitted to go off the record. So, you might read that a source couldn’t be identified “because of the sensitivity of the situation” or “because the person was not authorized to speak on the matter” or “who asked not to be named because being identified could put their jobs at risk.”
- Don’t try this with a reporter you’ve just met. That reporter may have the purest of intentions. But there is no track record. No history on which to base this important agreement. If you don’t know the reporter well, simply stay on the record.
- If you agree you won’t be identified by name, make sure you know how you will be identified. Be sure to agree on how the attribution will be phrased. You will not be happy (nor will your boss) if the reporter attributes a statement to “a lawyer at the company” – and there are only two lawyers at the company.
- Going off the record doesn’t eliminate all risk – for the source or reporter. Journalists get broad legal coverage in protecting sources – but not 100% security. Courts may compel reporters to reveal sources. Reporters have gone to jail to protect their sources. And the identity of sources has been revealed at the court’s order. Similarly, journalists have been sued for breach of contract for violating a promise of anonymity. It’s a high-wire act for everyone.
- Don’t go on and off the record within a single conversation. You’re inviting confusion – and potentially worse – when the story publishes or airs.
The Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Committee notes that: “Anonymous sources are sometimes the only key to unlocking that big story, throwing back the curtain on corruption, fulfilling the journalistic missions of watchdog on the government and informant to the citizens. But sometimes, anonymous sources are the road to the ethical swamp.”
At Hennes, we always say take the high road. And if you don’t want to see it in the newspaper, on the web or on the air, don’t say it.
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