June 28, 2011 — Journalists have all heard the words; “I don’t want to see any of this in the newspaper.”
The assumption is the person being interviewed, especially a government official, is in control of “the record.” To be perfectly clear, the record belongs only to journalists. We have every right to put what is said into print especially if it is newsworthy.
The premise is simple. If someone calls you from the newspaper to ask questions for a story, you are on the record unless you and the reporter have established a mutually agreed upon off the record conversation. Yet, in the newspaper business, off the record is not the norm but should be a rare occurrence.
Such is the case at this newspaper. Officials, especially government officials, need to understand to whom the record belongs and that the default situation belongs to the reporter. If someone walks up to a journalist and starts to volunteer information, or when reporters calls someone, identifies themselves and for whom they work and someone starts answering questions, the conversation is on the record and more than likely will end up in a news story.
In a small community, all reporters have made the mistake of letting the record be manipulated, and it is our job to let people know what on and off the record means. As Thomas Peele, an investigative reporter in the Bay Area said, “Our job is to serve the public interest through independent, probative reportage, primarily of the government and public institutions.”
Peele says he has had officials never speak to him again after reporting comments that the person demanded be off the record. Many reporters have been faced with the same threats. We agree with his answer, “To accept her demand that she dictate the terms of the record so I could have future conversations with her was simply untenable. All reporters can do is offer the people they write about the opportunity to answer the questions. Anything beyond that is pandering.”
Specifically government officials, but any public figure who can explain things to the citizen of Lassen County, need to understand and accept to whom the record belongs. It isn’t going to change. If you don’t want to speak to a reporter, then don’t. But when you do, know where the words are going to end up.
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