Wednesday, July 06, 2005

What "Off The Record" means to me.

Most of you reading know that I'm a journalist. I thought, with the Plame case in the news, you might want to know a bit about how we do our jobs and what some terms mean, at least to me.

I'm a self-taught journalist and have never taken a class in the field. So, if you're reading this and have taken a journalism class, this might differ from what you've heard, but this is the way I've learned things work.

Most interviews are just conversations with the key factor being that, as a journalist, you identify yourself and your field, and you tell the source as much as you know about the story you're writing. Sometimes, this is near impossible. Sometimes, you call somebody with questions just because you're curious. There is no story in the works, but there might be. To me, an "on the record interview" is any conversation you have, sober, where you have identified yourself as a journalist with questions. If I already know I'm writing a story, I tell the subject and I give them a sense of what I think the story is, without making promises about what it will be. Conversations like this are "on the record" unless stated otherwise.

Sometimes, a source wants to help, but doesn't want to be in the story. They will give information but don't want to be quoted or to have the information attributed to them. I call this, "On Background." Background information is usually contentious and thus needs to be verified independently. Usually, this is easy. Somebody tells you something about a person and you go to the person for a response. Sometimes, it's more arduous. But, in general, that's a "background" conversation -- it's information you can use, but not information you can attribute. Because of the lack of attribution, whatever you write, based on background information, will be stated in the journalist's voice, as a matter of fact or contention and it's up to the journalist to be sure of its truth.

"Off the record," to me, means -- you must gather this information from some other source in order to use it. See, you can't let somebody annonymously lob bombs at another person. If somebody says "Off the record, Phil robbed the safe," then you'll have to find another way or proving that Phil robbed the safe. Such conversations are often a complete waste of time since you're being given information that you can't use.

An interesting point -- these are conventions, not contracts. There is no legal definition of "off the record" or "on background" or "on the record."

This is how I function, given all of this ambiguity: First, I never let an annonymous person disparage a named person. Second, I always inform all interview subjects about my job and intentions, as best I know them. If my intentions change, I tell them, when the change occurs. If somebody is being criticized and they don't want to talk to me, I always fax, fed-ex or email, and sometimes all three, a point by point summary of what I plan to write, giving them plenty of time to offer rebuttal. I also, of course, gather circumstantial and direct evidence supporting claims made to me.

I write all of this "inside baseball" stuff because journalistic practices are in the news right now and, of course, because they're on my mind because I'm onto something that may turn into a story and may not. The toughest thing about journalism, I think is the need to draw connections between disparate sources and pieces of information, and to create unity that people outside of the field don't have the time to notice or piece together themselves.

There's a lot that passes for journalism that I don't believe is journalism. For exxample, I remember a TV news story from my childhood, a man named Larry Barker, known in New Mexico as an "investigative" journalist, did a story about soup kitchens throwing away edible food. The soup kitchens did this because people weren't eating the food and they didn't have storage space for it (and most of it would spoil soon anyway),,, this is how he got the story: he pretended to be a trash collector. Then he dramatically confronted the managers of the soup kitchen with his big "gotcha!" Thing is, if he had just called them up and asked them, they would have told him what was up. All the theatrics were a waste.

Journalism isn't cloak and daggers. It's about asking questions, drawing reasonable and defensible conclusions, and writing stories. Having sources and connections is, of course, important, but to less a degree than you'd think. 99% of it is just calling people and honestly asking questions, or reading documents with a curious mind. Heck, most of the relevant information is out there, in the public eye, there just needs to be somebody who has all day to read this report from the GAO and that report from the SEC and to make a connection.

The Plame case gives the misimpression that journalism is all about knowing somebody who can tell you secrets. It isn't so. And those "background" and "off the record" sources don't make stories -- they more likely just push the journalist in the right direction, giving them new questions to ask, out in the open.

Anyway, that's the way I think it works, and it's worked for me.


At 12:28 AM , Blogger Ideasculptor said...

So can we arrange to be, by default, 'off the record' with you in casual conversation unless explicitly stated otherwise. I'd hate to have to preface every statement about my job with a 'this is off the record' statement.

Of course, all that is predicated on the idea that one or the other of us will actual travel to the other's location for a visit. We've got nicer weather.


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