In my fulltime journalist days, I was only asked once to treat a whole interview as ‘off the record.’ When my article came out, the interviewee rang me and complained bitterly that he wasn’t quoted in it at all.
This story popped into my mind when I saw this cartoon on the super iScatterlings blog.
Like my interviewee, a lot of people don’t understand the basic concept of ‘off the record.’ This is what I think:
- It guarantees nothing. Journalists do not have a magic ‘off’ switch that is activated when you say the words ‘off the record.’ If you want to keep a secret, don’t tell anyone.
- A journalist may still record the conversation or take notes. It means – to my mind at least – that what you say will NOT appear in print.
- Journalists can’t unlearn something they know off the record. If they have the information it may shade or spin their story even if you aren’t quoted.
- It has a different meaning to ‘background,’ ‘non-attributable’ and ‘anonymous’. Reputable organisations and reporters will have detailed, highly nuanced guidelines on how to treat different categories of information.
- You can’t use ‘off the record’ to grab editorial control of what quotes are used. Either it is off the record or it is not. Either it is quotable or it is not.
- It is not the cure for interview nerves. (See my post: How to give good interview).
- Asking for something to be off the record isn’t even a speed bump to a disreputable journalist but creates several kinds of difficulty and stress for a reputable one. Don’t do it unless you really have to.
I wouldn’t say that you should NEVER trust a journalist. If you know them well, have confidence in their track record, if they have something to lose by betraying a confidence then you might consider telling them something off the record, as background to help them understand the story.
On the other hand, you wouldn’t trust a complete stranger with the keys to your car, so why trust a journalist you’ve never met with a secret? There are definitely lazy, immoral, stupid, corrupt journalists out there. There are also honourable, decent, trustworthy, respectable ones. Just like people in any profession.
Luckily, now most of my work is through Articulate Marketing for corporate clients and the issue doesn’t affect me so much. The little journalism I still do is not controversial or I tend to know the people I’m interviewing before I interview them.