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'Off the record'

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by 21, Feb 5, 2007.

  1. Elliotte Friedman

    Elliotte Friedman Moderator Staff Member

    One of the biggest problems I've had with people wanting to go "off the record" is that it can mean two different things.

    1) Don't use this information at all

    2) You can use this information, but you can't attach my name.

    Often, I'm asking the subject which it's supposed to be. It means different things to different people.
  2. Cosmo

    Cosmo Well-Known Member

    Heck, a lot of times, a source will give me "OTR" information and then point me to someone who can help me get it on the record. Good point, EF.
  3. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    I'm not a beat writer, and I interview a lot of regular folks - people whose only sense of "OTR" comes from movies or TV. I think it's only fair to warn them about the way I handle OTR issues. This is another way to put them at ease, as you say - by telling them up front the terms under which they're being interviewed.

    That said, when I sit down with someone who gets interviewed a lot, someone famous, I still spell out that OTR isn't unilaterally retroactive on their part. I'll also explain what I consider constitutes a comment made "without attribution" or one made "on background."

    Obviously I'm talking about long one-on-one sitdowns here.
  4. huntsie

    huntsie Active Member

    I try to be flexible. Often "off the record" is a bigger deal to my interview than it is to me. If we're at a point in the story where they say "Can we go off the record?" I usually grant them that.
    That gives me the information and allows me to put it in context -- whether it's important to be attributed, important for background, or not important at all.
    Once I know that, I can convey that to my source.
    "Why can't I use that?" usually either allows them to explain why its important to them and I tell them why its important to the story. Sometimes, they'll soften up and say "Go ahead and use it."
    Or I can tell them: "It's really not that big a deal." in the context of the story. Or if it's somewhere between the two, I can say: "Well, if you don't comment, or say Something, people are going to wonder why? What do you want to say for the record?"
    Then they either give you a varnished version of the original quote, allow you to use it as it was, or offer "No comment."
    In any case, you're being up front with the source and he's comfortable with how it's going to appear in the story.
  5. bigpern23

    bigpern23 Well-Known Member

    I've had that happen as well, but I never let them get away with a lie. If I know the truth and he doesn't want me to print that, I can let it go, but I won't print what I know is a blatant lie. In the past, when the coach tried that (he said on the record that the kid was sick), I told him I couldn't print that. I said I can go with he violated team rules, which was true, but not very specific, but I wouldn't lie. That's a disservice to the reader.
  6. ink-stained wretch

    ink-stained wretch Active Member

    You see a pad and pen in my hand or a recorder, it's on the record. I put 'em away, then we're just talking. Seems to work most of the time. Been burned a couple times after I put the notebook away and the source leveled with me. Such is life.
  7. goose

    goose Member

    Another topic for discussion: How do you handle using anonymous sources? Assuming it's worthwhile information, when a source says 'off the record,' does it mean not for publication, on background, not for attribution or something else? When something is valuable enough that it merits anonymous sourcing, how do you negotiate that with sources?
  8. cougargirl

    cougargirl Active Member

    OTR is almost touchy ground nowadays. As someone stated earlier, if the recorder's on or the pen is to the notepad, it's on the record. Likewise, if I'm recording a phone interview I inform the person I'm talking to that "I'm recording this, if you don't mind." However, I had a recent incident in which I identified myself, started interviewing someone and midway through the conversation the interviewee said, "This is all off the record, you know." I said, "Not at this point." That was quite an interesting exchange.

    When it comes to sources, there is also a level of courtesy given in regards to what's story material and what's strictly conversation. One coach I worked with was hesitant to discuss an issue with me, after I had discussed it with several other people for a story I was working on. I asked him, "Between you and me, how do you really feel about this?" I got the answer I was expecting to hear, but already had enough information from other sources that only supported his answer.
  9. Starman

    Starman Well-Known Member

    One reason this particular dead horse is one of my personal pet peeves is we have a guy at our joint who just leaps, I mean LEAPS, into "off-the-record" status virtually every time he talks with anybody.

    One time, one of the major teams in our coverage area was in the state tournament, and all of a sudden, their whole starting lineup is suspended. This guy calls the coach, and right off the bat, he says, "Just between you and me, I know you can't tell me on the record, but what's up with the suspensions?" Coach tells him "disciplinary matter," and it drops right there.

    So our stories just include the sentence: "Bigtime High was playing without several starters." (Including a couple of All-Staters.)

    Then after another game in another sport, one of our newsside reporters pipes up and says, "Hey, what did you guys hear about the bench-clearing brawl at the game at Hillbilly High the other day?"

    "Didn't hear a word about it," our guy says. "I took the call on the phone and the coach didn't say a thing. Gave me the box score and said there were 4 technicals called in the game, but didn't say anything else."

    "Well, about two dozen cop cars were called to the school and about a dozen players were hauled off, along with about 20 kids from the stands," says Newsside Guy. "Took them about an hour to straighten the whole thing out."

    So happens that Hillbilly High is playing again that night. Their coach calls in and the same guy takes the call. I'm sitting across the desk, and I hear him, "Hey coach, I know you can't talk about it on the record, but what really happened at the game the other night..." Of course, the story ends up as another heaping helping of happy horseshit.

    Coaches have seen it, politicians have seen it, and JOURNALISTS have seen it on TV and movies too many freaking million times, reporters handing out OTR status at the drop of a hat -- or sources claiming it.

    You don't go off the record just because the source thinks he wants to. And you don't OFFER to go off the record just because you think the source might want to.

    You're a journalist. Unless you determine there is a good reason to the contrary, and electively AGREE to it, everything you see and hear is On The Record.
  10. Piotr Rasputin

    Piotr Rasputin New Member

    In beats I've covered, if a coach asks for something to be off the record, or says it's off the record, I immediately let him know if I agree or disagree. Usually, it's a yes, but it's important to acknowledge that you heard him so there are no questions later as you go through the tape, and when something ends up in print.

    If a coach asks about leaving something off the record after the fact, I usually let him know I still might use it, and they have never told me not to from there. Because sometimes they just say something geeky, and then feel dumb about it later. They usually respond when I tell them I may use it with "No problem, I trust you."

    Which is of course why it's important for us to make sure, at least as beat guys, that we communicate regarding "off the record." To build and maintain that trust.
  11. Frank_Ridgeway

    Frank_Ridgeway Well-Known Member

    I agree with jgmacg. I spent a couple months working on a long piece outside sports a few years ago. These people were not media-savvy. I thought I had to be fair and have us agree on ground rules from the beginning.

    At the end one guy wanted to change the rules. Called me and said, you're not gonna write what I told you about the financial situation of my business and negotiations with state agencies, are you? I said, of course I am. He said, I thought that was off the record. I said, you saw me writing in my notebook, what did you think I was doing, doodling? And anyway, almost everything I'm writing about that part of it is available in public records or from interviews I did with other people. He stayed pissed at me for about a year. We're OK now, in fact he keeps telling me stuff even though I've made it clear that my paper is no longer interested in that topic.
  12. Bubbler

    Bubbler Well-Known Member

    Great post. That's how I operate too.
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