What is… off the record?

November 18, 2016 5:32 pm

To writers and other types of content producers today, the Woodward-Bernstein days of Watergate journalism might as well be another geological epoch deep in the past. With today’s 24/7 news cycles, social media and thousands of independent bloggers, past notions about reportage seem quaint, if not completely extinct.

This was once a conversation mainly held by journalists and their editors. But in an age of brand content, increasing numbers of organisations need to master the concepts and practice of reporting.

However, some concepts about writing – especially when including the words of others – are evergreen. Paramount among these is the concept of trust: the people whom you speak with and/or write about should be able to trust that you will present their views and comments fairly and accurately. And if you agree not to make their private comments to you public, they should be able to trust in that as well.

Your audience, meanwhile, should be able to trust that your writing and sourcing is as transparent as possible. That is, if you’re going to write that Company X is about to unveil a major reorganisation with a shift to completely new products, services and markets, you need to make clear who that information has come from and why it’s reliable. Ideally, that means identifying your source by name and title.

Sometimes, though, your sources might not want to speak ‘on the record’. According to the Associated Press statement on its news values and principles, on the record means: “The information can be used with no caveats, quoting the source by name.”

So what are the alternatives to ‘on the record’? The obvious counterpart is ‘off the record’, which – as you’d expect – means: “The information cannot be used for publication.”

Because of a writer’s obligations to both sources and readers, however, off-the-record conversations should be limited to only a few situations. (And comments made on social media need never apply.) The same holds true for two similar conditions: ‘on background’ and ‘not for attribution’.

“These days many interviewees think ‘off the record’ is largely synonymous with ‘on background’ or ‘not for attribution’,” notes New York University’s Department of Journalism. “There is so much murkiness about what ‘off the record’ means that it is essential that the reporter and source agree on a definition before beginning an ‘off the record’ portion of an interview”.

‘On background’, according to the AP, generally applies to a conversation in which sources are OK with you using the information they provide but they don’t want to be named (although, for example, it might be all right to refer to someone as ‘a top official in such-and-such office’). ‘Not for attribution’ – sometimes also called ‘deep background’ – means you can use the information but cannot identify your source in any way.

Finally, there’s one more important thing to remember when having a conversation under any of the above conditions: both you and your source need to agree on the specific conditions before your interview, not during or after. In that way, you both clearly understand – and should honour – the ground rules up front, with no room for misunderstanding, bad feelings or anger after the fact.

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