Why Journalists Shouldn’t Go “Off The Record”
If you have ever watched a movie or television show with a journalist in it, you have probably heard them use this expression before. It basically means that you won’t use whatever they tell you in a story or any kind of published writing.
Do I even need to point out how pointless this would be for a Journalist most of the time? The whole purpose of running down leads and talking to people is to develop and research a story you plan to write. You don’t get paid to chat with people for no reason, as nice as that would be. Sure, knowing the truth might be nice, but it is useless if you can’t write about it.
All of that being said, saying something is off the record doesn’t really mean anything. By this I mean that it isn’t legally binding in any way. If you make the mistake of something is off the record in the first place, you could very well go and publish what they say to you. This is considered extremely bad form though, not to mention it might irreparably damage your credibility. If your sources can’t trust you, no one will chose to talk to you, which could very well harm or end your career as a reporting journalist. Being trustworthy is of the utmost importance to a Journalist.
If you are going to stick to your word and not publish what your source tells you in confidence, what good is going “off the record” going to do you? The answer is not a whole lot. The only instance where this might be mildly useful is if you hunt down a lead that can give you some information that might lead you to a bigger or more important part of the story. That way you can use the information they give you to hunt down the big fish and use the information you get in that pursuit for your story. You can also use the information as a springboard to give you direction in your research. If you can find a second source that offers the same information, you can publish what they told you and attribute it to the second source. It may seem a little shadier, but you aren’t involving them so it isn’t really a problem.
Basically, it is in your interest to never take any information off the record. I would never recommend lying to a source, but most people will be understanding if you explain your position to them politely. Something about saying something is off the record makes people feel like they know some big secret, it gives them a bit of an ego trip to be entirely honest. If you explain to them that you plan on writing a story about what they tell you and that you don’t want to leave holes most people can be swayed to tell you anyways. If it is something of grave importance that could negatively impact the source on a personal or professional level, keep their position in mind as well. Don’t belligerently pursue them trying to make them break and tell you. This would be a time it might be a good foundation for later research but not something you should publish.
Basically, it all comes back to your credibility, your brand, as a writer. If you want people to put stock in what you have to say, you have to be honest and trust worthy. The best way to accomplish this is to keep your head above board and don’t get yourself into a situation that could end up damaging your reputation.