Mark Binker, capital reporter for the News & Record, posted this query on Facebook: Agreements to treat material as “off the record” or “on background” are not things that any reporter worth his salt will violate. But they are, well, agreements. I don’t always agree grant sources off-the-record protection. (For example: If I don’t trust that you’re telling me the truth.) So journalism friends, riddle me this: are you bound by an off-the-record agreement when a flack e-mails you out of the blue and tells you something is off-the-record without you agreeing to it? Should we let campaigns get away with pushing information without having that information sourced back to them? The e-mail that says “Off the record: here’s a bunch of cruddy stuff about our opponent.” For discussion.
And discussion there was. Twenty-six comments in the two hours or so it’s been up. Almost all say that off the record is a mutual agreement between reporter and source, which Mark certainly already knew.
But his point is right. Sources will preface conversations with “this is off the record” and without pausing tell you something they want you to write, but don’t want their names associated with. Or they will simply send you information in a press release and embargo it two days ahead, expecting you to keep the information to yourself. (They are going to be disappointed.) Or they will go through an entire interview and then say “by the way, you can’t quote me on any of that.”
For the journalist, the most amusing are the conversations in which the source says “this is off the record” and then tells you something that isn’t remotely interesting enough to pursue or even care about.
I always made a distinction between the professional, who should know the rules, and the member of the public, who probably doesn’t. But even that gets complicated because, as Mark points out in the comments, a lot of PR professionals are young and green and think reporters exist to help them get their stories out.
Reporters aren’t your friend, that’s for sure. Or they shouldn’t be.