Saturday, November 05, 2005

"Off The Record"

If the jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller has taught us anything, it’s that some reporters have the ethical conviction to protect their sources who speak to them “off the record”. If only that was true of all reporters.

Part of the problem is, not all reporters agree on what the phrase “off the record” really means.

When I was working at NBC News, the two things I was given day-one were 1) a key to the men’s room, and 2) a copy of NBC News Policies and Procedures. I had to return the key when I departed 30 Rock, but I still have the P&P’s book.

Blowing the dust off the blue binder and gently turning the yellowed, mimeographed pages, I recently re-read the two pages in that binder relating to the use of “Confidential Sources”. As an employee of NBC News, those guidelines make it unambiguously clear what obligations I had to my sources. If push came to shove, I’d have gone to jail to protect their identity.

But these days, much of that book might as well get tossed out the window. For too many reporters a “confidential source” is seen as a springboard to career advancement, not a journalistic trust that must be kept.

In my media training workshops, I tell my clients that “Off The Record” is a trust which the reporter must earn. It doesn’t automatically come with a press pass. Most often, my training clients are meeting a reporter for the first time. There should be no expectation of journalistic ethics in this age of Fox News and anonymous bloggers.

Even more dangerous is the reporter who implies “off the record” but never uses those words. The reporter who closes his notebook, turns off his tape recorder and seems to indicate the interview is over should to be regarded with caution. Some of the best stories I got as a working journalist occurred “after the interview”, not during it. Every contact with a reporter must be seen as part of the news gathering process.

The overheard comment in a public space is also fair game for reporting. The men’s room chat after a speech or interview is as much a part of the news gathering as the formal sit-down interview.

Reporters aren’t your friends, but neither are they the enemy. They are a conduit for sending your message to their audience.

So… Stay on the record. Deliver your messages. Always assume the tape / video recorder is on. Don’t be paranoid, but do be on guard and on-message.


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