• On going off the record

    A post by Shane puts the spotlight on an interesting side-show to Samantha Power’s recent “monster” comments in relation to Hillary Clinton.

    The Scotsman’s decision to run with a story based around an off-the-record comment raises some ethical questions about the entire meaning of those three words, and about a journalist’s obligation to pay attention to them.

    Going off the record can mean anything from being quoted as an anonymous source, not being directly quoted but having your unattributed comments published as fact nonetheless, providing context and background to an issue or providing information that cannot be referenced in any way in the finished piece but that may prove useful in the questions you later ask of those going “on the record”.

    Usually the important thing is to not identify the source of the comments or information – although in Power’s case she would surely have meant it in the “don’t reference that at all” kind of way.

    However rather than agree to her wishes, The Scotsman made it the centrepiece of a story that should have been about her new book. Legally speaking there’s probably nothing stopping them from doing so and it’s no good to Power now saying “I didn’t mean it, I was off the record” but there are ethical questions to this.

    Going off the record can open a journalist up to a wealth of information that recorded conversations can not and from these types of comments alone, a story can be built up into something powerful and most importantly printable. Off the record can be a useful way of getting the inside story, getting pointed in the right direction with a lead or simply firming up your work with a comment that is too dangerous for the source of it to tack their name to.

    As Shane points out, newspapers would be far more interesting places if everything told to journalists off the record was printed – but conversely newspapers would be consistently worthless if journalists were never told anything off the record at all.

    Because of this and as Shane also points out, journalists usually keep up their side of the bargain for the sake of their relationship with a source; put bluntly the person giving you off-the-record information will continue to do so as long as you stick to your side of the agreement and as they learn to trust you more and more they might trust you with more and more information.

    But as Fergal points out in the comments, in this case The Scotsman likely has no long-term use with Power as a source and it’s not like her ‘off-the-record’ comment was something they could use as the foundation of another story without landing her in it in the end anyway.

    However, while in the short term letting the comment slide would have lost them a big-draw story for no obvious gain, it may come back to bite the newspaper – or even just Gerri Peev – when regular/potentially regular contacts begin to seize up for fear that their off-the-record comment are not off-the-record at all.

    The situation is parallel to that of protecting your sources in court – a journalist must be willing to protect a source, even at the cost of their own liberty, or else they will lose their trust in an instant. If a journalist gains a reputation for him or herself as someone who identifies whistle-blowers at the first sign of personal trouble, then no-one will come near them in future.

    Likewise you have to wonder if The Scotsman will see a decline in hush-hush information now that Power’s off-the-record comments have proven to be anything but that.

    Then there’s a whole other issue of how much protection the off-the-record comment should afford a person. If a politician admits to being corrupt whilst off-the-record, what should a journalist do? I suppose the simple answer is that a good journalist will use that assertion to investigate and unearth solid evidence of said corruption thus maintaining their ethical integrity without letting a good story go by. Of course, it’s not always that simple (but it’s not as if you claiming a politician admitted they were corrupt to you would be much of a story in itself anyway – legally speaking).

    From a personal point of view, an article I’m working on at the moment has involved a lot of off-the-record (unquoted, that is) conversations with people and it’s not the first one, either. It’s quite apparent to me that if I were to betray the trust of the people I’ve spoken to off-the-record, for this article and others, I’d be well advised to pack journalism in and doing something different afterwards. Having a reputation for being dishonest or untrustworthy with a source is about the worst kind you can have and it’s certainly not something I have any intention of gaining.

    PS: I also think it’s ethically, and perhaps legally, questionable of the newspaper to say that Power’s comments represent “the [Obama] camp’s true feelings about the former first lady” – maybe they do, but can they back that statement up with proof?