Ah, I love the smell of “off the record” in the morning. It smells like … journalism! Well, sort of.
Last week in this space I took exception to the Redding Tea Party’s establishment of rules that would not allow the Redding media to report on the question-and-answer session during its townhall meeting with U.S. Congressman Doug LaMalfa. They said that portion of the meeting was “off the record.” I also wrote the Redding media and the congressman should not have gone along with the Redding Tea Party’s attempt at prior restraint — that is controlling a news source’s content before it is published or broadcast.
When I visited the Redding Tea Party’s website earlier this week I couldn’t help but notice the group had posted an audio file of this off-the-record question-and-answer session with the congressman.
Now I don’t want to walk too quickly off the good old conspiracy theory gangplank and suggest the Redding Tea Party folks just wanted to control or stifle the media’s coverage of their event by banning reportage of the question-and-answer session. In fact, I hope that’s not the case, but it is curious the group posted this off-the-record information on its own website — the very same information the group’s membership voted should be banned from the media.
I’m going to take the high ground instead and suggest they simply didn’t understand what the phrase off-the-record really means. Believe it or not, it’s a term that frequently causes debates, questions and ethical issues within the journalistic community.
Generally, when journalists use the phrase off the record, it’s an agreement between a reporter and a source. Both sides must agree to go off the record in advance. It’s an agreement journalists should make with caution because some sources will try to go off the record to simply avoid discussing the matter for publication, and that’s not the intent.
Here’s how I understand off the record. According to an off the record agreement, the source provides information to the journalist that will not be published in any form. Period. For the journalist, off the record comments can help make a difficult or complicated story more understandable. Even though the off the record comments will not be published, the journalist can get a better perspective on a story. Often going off the record with a source can give a journalist the information needed to ask pertinent questions of another source who is not off the record.
Some government officials, even some here in Lassen County, insist there is no such thing as an off the record conversation, and they steadfastly refuse to engage in one. It’s a matter of relationship and trust, and if an official doesn’t feel comfortable talking off the record, they should not. I would never try to force a source to go off the record. It’s an agreement.
Off the record should not be confused with other similar agreements journalists might make with sources such as “not for attribution” or “background.” Off the record simply means exactly what it appears to mean — the information will not be placed on the record.
Should the Redding Tea Party folks have published comments they said were off the record? I guess that’s an ethical question with which they’ll have to wrangle. I know if I talk to someone off the record, I never violate that promise. And I trust the people I speak with off the record will also keep my side of the conversation off the record, too.
To me, that’s how this off-the-record deal works.
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