Off the Record - Does Such a Thing Exist?

Sunday, September 11, 2011


There are many varied interpretations of the journalistic phrase "off the record". To some it means the comments can be used as long as there is no attribution. To some it means that anything said can only be used as indirect background information, without attribution or direct quotation. And still to others it means anything said during an interview is unable to be used in any form whatsoever.

With the variety of definitions, how can anyone ever be certain what a source means when they want to be interviewed "off the record"? A good practice is suggested on JournoWorld, which states:

if there is any doubt at all about the status of a conversation then you should clarify it.Link
Jamie McIntyre, a former senior pentagon correspondent for CNN, wrote that he often begun off-the-record dinners in the pentagon in the same manner. "Just to be clear and so there is no misunderstanding," he would proclaim in a somber voice, "when we say off the record, we mean not for reporting in any form, (pause for effect).. unless it's REALLY, REALLY good."

That may seem like a humorous comment, but if you really look at it he has a point. Anything that is said off the record can not be used, but it can be confirmed from other sources later who may be willing to go on the record. Anything being said should, in reality, be something that is willing to be printed and attributed. Sooner or later it is bound to come back at you anyway.

McIntyre goes into a bit more analysis on the idea of off the record in an article on the American Journalism Review.

There is even more reason to question whether or not there can be a conversation that is off the record any longer. An article on the Online Journalism Review mentions how, in 2008, a writer for the Huffington Post wrote about a comment that Barack Obama made during a gathering where journalists were not allowed. This writer was present as a campaign supporter, and did what any good blogger or tweeter would do in today's world: report about the controversial comment made.

That was three years ago and even then the question came up about citizen journalism taking over things. If I overhear something that is being said between two people who are "off the record", is it wrong for me to blog or tweet about it? No, I don't think so, because I was not part of that agreement.

And in a world where everything can be found with ease, an eavesdropped comment can pop up within minutes. That could spread to dozens of places within half an hour. How can you have damage control for that? The only viable solution: don't go "off the record" because such a thing is a notion of the past.

2 comments:

Megan Evans September 12, 2011 at 11:56 AM  

I completely agree with the comment that "off the record" is "a thing of the past." Even if it is an agreement between two parties, inevitably it will be brought up again (especially if it's really good). We should know the sources of where our information is coming from, and the information should be gathered in the most honest manner possible.

Mike Tweeton September 12, 2011 at 8:41 PM  

Nothing is sacred. In the world of twitter and Facebook, a few untimely words last forever. However, this does raise a great question surrounding journalism ethics. Should the ethical standards applied to journalists be reflected by professionals in the social media realm? I believe so. However, there’s no stopping a great story.

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