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Going on the record

We’ve all heard it, if not in person then on television or in books — the reporter’s key source leans in at the end of the interview and says “And this is off the record, but…” and continues, with a shifty glance over each shoulder, to dish out some sordid detail of a story.

It’s a great way to push a fictional tale’s plot forward, but it’s an unrealistic bit of theater, really.

The first thing to know is that “going off the record” isn’t a privilege or right that a source can claim of their own accord and at their convenience. There are no laws about “the record” and there is no governing body to enforce any rules, either. It’s only an agreement between the source and the reporter that the information they’re going to share is sensitive and should be handled in a certain way. 

As a source, if you’re not sure you can trust a reporter with sensitive information, it’s best simply to keep it to yourself. As a reporter, if a source wants to give you sensitive information, it’s important to be clear about how you intend to use it. Publishing a detail a source offered you in confidence only to find out later they were trusting you not to is something you can’t undo, and that source won’t likely trust you again. And on the other hand, a reporter needlessly withholding information crucial to the public because they didn’t know the source simply didn’t want to be named isn’t great either. Understanding what each of you expects from the other is key to developing trust.

Each reporter might have different ways of treating a source’s sensitive information, but there are four categories that are generally taught.

The first is, of course, “on the record”. This is the default for interviews and the ideal for reporters. This means a reporter has permission to use the information, identify the source, and run quotes. The readers get to know exactly what is being said and who’s saying it. If you’re interviewing with someone for the first time, whether you’re a source or a reporter, it’s best to stay on the record. Save the sensitive stuff for once you’ve gained some trust in each other.

“Off the record” is just the opposite. Information given to a reporter off the record is completely nonpublishable, and is basically just to inform the reporter themselves. If a reporter wants to publish any of it, they have to find another source that will go on the record about it. This can put a reporter in a tough spot sometimes, chasing important information that nobody will confirm publicly, and for that and other reasons, some reporters refuse to ever go off the record. Don’t go off the record with a source unless you believe they have truly important information. Don’t share information with a reporter off the record unless you want them to chase that lead.

Somewhere between off and on the record is “on background”. Sources on background can be quoted, but not identified by name. Anonymous sources in stories are on background. The reporter, and typically their editor, knows who the source is, but has agreed not to publish their name, usually because the source’s safety or livelihood is at risk. The source might instead be identified by their position or relation to the subject of the story. Stories often cite “department officials” or “a member of the staff” when they have gotten information from someone that isn’t technically supposed to speak for an organization and might be fired for doing so.

The last category is “Deep background,” and often amounts to being off the record. Information on deep background can be used, but the source can’t be identified at all, not even described. This means a reporter would have to publish the information unattributed, a risky move unless the information is incredibly important and the hidden source very trustworthy. Most reporters would avoid using information on deep background by trying to find a source that would go on record, or at least on background.

Again, these categories are essentially a verbal agreement between source and reporter, which can get troublesome when crime is involved. If law enforcement comes to a reporter to name an anonymous source, the reporter can (and in many cases does) end up in jail for not revealing their source.

I’ll write more on that when we cover the patchwork of U.S. shield laws — some of the only laws written specifically concerning reporters — meant to keep them from jail time for protecting their sources. These laws have shortcomings that are increasingly troubling as news is gathered more and more often by freelancers.

How you deal with your sources is one of the most important things to consider. A lot of reporters go about it in many different ways. Personally, I try to be friendly whenever possible and always straightforward about my intentions for an interview and the story that will follow. I can’t always predict where a story will lead me, but I can always share what I’m setting out to write and what their place in it will be.

However you decide to deal with you sources, I encourage you to again review the below section of the SPJ code of ethics on minimizing harm. We’re not doctors or lawyers, but what we write can have a significant impact on who we write about. It’s important to consider that impact before it’s too late.

Joshua Vissers holds a B.A. in multimedia journalism and is associate editor at the Daily Mining Gazette. Send questions to jvissers@mininggazette.com.

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