I think more journalists should be as clear as possible about the ethical codes governing their reporting process; too often, too much is left unsaid.
In particular, I think many people who act as sources for journalists may have false notions about the difference between doing an interview “on the record” and having an “off-the-record” conversation — or, more insidiously, the difference between a “background” and “off-the-record” conversation.
With that in mind, I’ve appended a section to my Ethics page about how I view “going off the record” in which I outline a few rules for sources to know:
- For the vast majority of my sources, I must ensure they know two things right off the bat: (1) I’m a reporter and (2) it’s possible things they say to me could end up on statewide radio, whether my recorder is on or off. They deserve to know whether I can offer them the protection of anonymity before I turn on the microphone. (They should also know I alone cannot grant anonymity; I must consult with my editor to do that.)
- To me, “On the record” is the same as saying, “You can publish or air that information and attribute it to me.”
- To me, “On background” is the same as saying, “You can publish or air that information, but you cannot attribute it to me.” This could be useful in confirming facts or providing leads to other stories. But if the information doesn’t belong in my story, don’t use the words “On background.”
- To me, “Off the record” is the same as saying, “You cannot publish or air that information and you cannot attribute it to me.” These conversations are often helpful to the reporting process with the intention of holding similar on-record or background interviews at a subsequent time.
- My source and I must mutually agree to go off-record. It doesn’t work for a source to divulge a piece of information and say after the fact, “This is off the record.” Ask first, “Can we go off-record?” Honestly, most often, I’ll simply say yes.
- I honor embargoes so long as they are clearly specified at the outset. I love embargoed information. It helps journalists study information so we can better understand it before publishing it. But if you’ve sent me a press release without an embargo (e.g. advisories that say “For Immediate Release,” etc.) you cannot embargo that information after-the-fact — unless, of course, you’re retracting it wholesale.
As I specify on my Ethics page, I’m bound by the policies of WFIU, WTIU and Indiana Public Media News; and by the guidelines spelled out in the NPR Ethics Handbook.
(UPDATED with a few corrections for clarity’s sake and this thought: I’m not sharing this because I’ve had any particular problem with any source of mine lately. I’m simply sharing this for clarity’s sake. Note also that I frequently update and make additions to my Ethics page.)
(UPDATED again — for the sake of brevity, I’ve removed this section from my main Ethics page and updated the above post to reflect. I’ll let the above post stand as an appendix.)