Does Off the Record Still Exist?
DFW Chapter President and National Blog Chairwoman
At our last Dallas-Fort Worth ASBPE Chapter meeting, the subject came up of how to handle "off the record" remarks. We had a public relations firm owner and a local business journal editor addressing our group about how to cultivate sources, so it was a natural question for the people who sit on both sides of the issue.
What I found interesting was that both of them agreed that no source should ever tell a reporter something off the record. Either it is for publication or it isn't. I think I straddle the fence. Recently, I had a similar situation. In an article for Commercial Property News about how retail is growing in India, I had a source mention that he/she was in a meeting with several hundred people when Tiffany's made the announcement of planning a stand-alone store in India with no local partners for support. The source did not want to be named and a representative from Tiffany's contacted my editor (who, in turn, contacted me) and I respectfully declined to name the source. He/she said there were hundreds of people there, so he/she didn't mind giving me the information, but under no circumstances was I to divulge the name.
Well, as a reporter, it is like gold to find a news nugget before anyone else. Of course, I had to go with it. But, is it really worth it? Off-the-record comments can often be a good starting point to find the information from another source. Simply knowing the information can lead you to ask another source to confirm it and then you have it on the record. But, it is a balancing act.
Online Journalism Review - Supported by the Annenberg School for Communication at USC made the contention that there's no such thing as off the record in this age of blogs and the instant ability to share news or gossip. I think they may be right. I question, however, if that is such a bad thing. It is like spreading gossip around the water cooler or coffee machine. If you don't want to be associated with saying something, keep your mouth shut. If you don't want to be quoted, then don't say it. Am I wrong?
Any "off the record or on the record" discussion should take into account the relationship business magazine editors should be trying to build with their important sources.
In fact, we should be much closer to our sources than other news reporters or feature articles. We see them at conventions, maybe play tennis or golf (or scrabble or chess -- the latter was my specialty) at annual resort-base conferences. We visit their homes and meet their families. In short, we build friendships rather than contacts.
This relationship, if we are good at it, will give us access to sources nobody else has. They feel assured that we will quote them accurately and honor their confidences.
So does a source always have to be on the record. Probably not. Yes . . . it is annoying when you quote somebody accurately and they deny they said any of it (probably because they didn't have authorization to grant an interview). In that case, even a "everything's on the record" admonition wouldn't help.
Does it hurt that much if you honor an "off the record" request? It depends. Some people grant interviews looking for easy exposure, then give you nothing during a 30-minute session." Everything they said was on the record, but none of it was worth printing, no matter how hard to tried to direct the conversation.
Then there are interesting situations when sources give a speech that's totally on the record. But some of the comments made, if printed, would damage the individual's reputation as well as the company image. In certain cases,I have concluded that an on-the-record,no punches pulled talk should stay off the record as far as my magazine is concerned.
As is the case is so many other publishing situations," trying to develop off the-record guidelines is not a one-shoe-fits-all situation.
If we are part of an industry as opposed to a news reporter who may be an outsider to several industries, we should take a more lenient stance on how we interact with our sources. Believe me, you can still get a great story, and very often, it will be exclusive because of the relationship of trust you have built.
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