Does Off the Record Still Exist?

Photo: Tonie AuerBy Tonie Auer
DFW Chapter President and National Blog Chairwoman

At our last Dallas-Fort Worth ASBPE Chapter meeting, the subject came up of how to handle “off the record” remarks. We had a public relations firm owner and a local business journal editor addressing our group about how to cultivate sources, so it was a natural question for the people who sit on both sides of the issue.

What I found interesting was that both of them agreed that no source should ever tell a reporter something off the record. Either it is for publication or it isn’t. I think I straddle the fence. Recently, I had a similar situation. In an article for Commercial Property News about how retail is growing in India, I had a source mention that he/she was in a meeting with several hundred people when Tiffany’s made the announcement of planning a stand-alone store in India with no local partners for support. The source did not want to be named and a representative from Tiffany’s contacted my editor (who, in turn, contacted me) and I respectfully declined to name the source. He/she said there were hundreds of people there, so he/she didn’t mind giving me the information, but under no circumstances was I to divulge the name.

Well, as a reporter, it is like gold to find a news nugget before anyone else. Of course, I had to go with it. But, is it really worth it? Off-the-record comments can often be a good starting point to find the information from another source. Simply knowing the information can lead you to ask another source to confirm it and then you have it on the record. But, it is a balancing act.

Online Journalism Review – Supported by the Annenberg School for Communication at USC made the contention that there’s no such thing as off the record in this age of blogs and the instant ability to share news or gossip. I think they may be right. I question, however, if that is such a bad thing. It is like spreading gossip around the water cooler or coffee machine. If you don’t want to be associated with saying something, keep your mouth shut. If you don’t want to be quoted, then don’t say it. Am I wrong?

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