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When "off the record" really matters

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

One very common event in the daily life of a journalist is receiving information "off the record." People often call or walk up to let you in on some tidbit of gossip they think might be of interest, whether it's the "real" truth about some public event everyone else thinks they're already familiar with, or some information completely out of left field that can turn into a real story.

To the average guy, "off the record" information might seem useless -- what's the point if you know something but you can't report it? But in fact, "off the record" information is extremely helpful.

For one thing, you can't investigate something if you don't know it exists. The information may be inaccurate, but it's usually possible to check around and find the real story, once you've heard the lop-sided version of it.

But you can't look if you don't know.

Typically, any story of a serious nature you read in the paper of any depth probably includes at least some kernel of verified or attributable material that was originally "off the record."

(What is "verified"or "attributable"? This is important. You don't put information in an article unless you can either quote somebody and say "he or she said this," in other words you can attribute the information directly to them; or else you verify its accuracy yourself in some other way, as in other interviews, public records, etc.)

There are several reasons to keep "off the record" information off the record:

In some cases serious harm might befall the source if their identity is uncovered.

The willingness of other potential sources to share information with reporters may be eroded if confidential sources are identified.

The public perception of journalistic integrity is damaged when assurances about confidentiality are breached.

The so-called "chilling effect," which serves to dissuade sources in the future from stepping forward with unknown information for fear of reprimand or retaliation.

Information comes to you in many different ways. Sometimes it's a person who walks in off the street with a complaint and wants you to take up their cause. Or a phone call. Or sometimes it's something you read on a community bulletin board and then check out on your own.

The point isn't where the original factoid came from, it's that you double check it for accuracy, or to make sure there's a story there at all. Not every complaint, and definitely not every juicy fact, equals news.

Lest you imagine a world of spies sneaking around whispering behind people's backs, off the record information gives people who are concerned with events a way of making that info known to the press, and hence hopefully to the rest of the world. They may be wrong; sometimes they don't know if their information is 100 percent correct. But they feel they should come forward.

Sometimes they are just carrying a grudge, or at the very least have their own biases or agendas, in which case they probably won't tell you outright, so it's up to you then to do the legwork and find out the truth.

Not everybody is always happy to see you coming, especially if you have a list of intelligent questions derived from a tip that put the person in the position of saying what they'd rather not have to say, or else misrepresent to cover their own butts. But for many people, i.e. public officials, it's a part of their job. And for a lot of other people too.

Because despite human frailty and error, the bottom line is to get to the truth of a situation, if possible, and to inform the public of the truth in such things as you investigate. Otherwise there's no point in doing this at all.