PoliticsJune 17, 2021

What does ‘off the record’ actually mean?


Gossip Week: The use of off the record conversations is a staple of journalism, but what does it actually involve? And can you trust journalists to keep their word? Alex Braae asks around.

All week, The Spinoff is taking a look at the role of gossip in Aotearoa’s past, present and future – read more Gossip Week content here.

Don’t quote me on this, but if you say something off the record to a journalist, they’ll almost always respect that and keep your confidence. 

The concept of “off the record” is widely known, but not necessarily widely understood outside of journalism. In the simplest terms, it means a source can tell a journalist some information, without being concerned that they’ll be quoted on the front page of the paper the next day. 

In doing so, there are potential benefits for both parties. The source gets to put information or perspectives across safely, and it may help the journalist to gain a better understanding of a situation they’ve been tasked with writing about. That information might also be useful, without necessarily being directly used. 

Some media trainers and managers would advise their clients to assume that absolutely everything said to a journalist is on the record, or that journalists are an inherently untrustworthy bunch. And there are times when this is true – for example, it should always be assumed that a radio studio microphone in front of you is turned on. 

But if a source tells a journalist something that they’re about to say is off the record, with very, very few exceptions, they can expect that confidence will be kept. The journalist’s own reputation for honesty and integrity is at stake, and one of the few justifiable reasons to break that trust is if the journalist has been deliberately lied to by the source. 

So what are the rules? First of all – the media trainers are right in that things said to journalists under normal circumstances are, by definition, on the record. Rebecca Stevenson, the head of news at BusinessDesk, said that is the default assumption. 

“As long as you’ve accurately and clearly identified that you’re a journalist, and you’re working on a story that you’re calling to talk about, I think it’s all on the record,” said Stevenson. But that’s just the cleanest example of how these exchanges take place – what about, for example, at a party when someone just happens to mention something to a journalist, without knowing what the person they’re talking to does for a living?  

“People do say things they don’t mean,” said Stevenson. “In those situations, we ring them and we clarify. We say hey, we thought this stood out – is this really what you meant? And actually in a number of cases, no, they haven’t meant that.” 

In other words, the normal standards of accuracy and verification still apply. But what if you’re talking to someone in a job that doesn’t really allow them to speak to the media in the first place? 

This is something Newsroom’s Sam Sachdeva sometimes encounters on his beat of covering foreign affairs. Diplomats, by both nature and role, aren’t likely to want to see themselves quoted in the news. 

Many events held around foreign affairs take place under a set of rules known as “Chatham House”. This is generally defined as meaning that no attributed quotes can be used – for example, a journalist might be able to report that a topic was discussed, but are not allowed to reveal the speaker or their affiliations in any piece that is then published. 

Photo: Getty

Given most news organisations have high standards on when and why an anonymous quote can be used, this makes a lot of what happens under Chatham House rules largely unreportable. “That can be obviously quite limiting, when you go to say a Chatham House speech by an ambassador, and they make comments about their country – there’s no genuine way to quote what they say without giving away who they are,” said Sachdeva. 

But useful and usable information might still come out of such events, particularly around building up knowledge on the background to issues or perspectives. “In terms of informing reporting, I think that’s entirely fair game, and that has been useful to me on occasion.”  

While it’s less useful for breaking news, Stevenson said long-form writers in particular can find value in off the record conversations. “There’s probably a lot more off the record in investigations, for example, because a lot of it is just getting people to talk to you so you can follow the threads, and then finding the documentation and facts to back up what you suspect.” 

Many of those in jobs that involve interacting with the press understand that media coverage can also be useful to them, rather than just a problem to be avoided. That in turn raises the question – how can journalists avoid being used by sources who use off the record comments as a way of laundering their perspective into the news? 

As the long-serving political editor of Newstalk ZB, Barry Soper has plenty of experience navigating this. He described how back in the day he’d get phone calls from former PM Helen Clark, who would sometimes “drop a gem” in the conversation.

“You knew she was doing it deliberately, to get people talking, but rather than accepting it as being gospel you’d test it out within the political system, and then maybe run a story”, said Soper. 

“To me, it was her way of testing the water, and if there was no more than a ripple, then you might see something from it. But if it was a tidal wave then she’d turn it back, and nothing would be done.” Soper said this is not a practice used by current PM Jacinda Ardern, who is “not an off the record type politician”.

Jacinda Ardern takes questions from Barry Soper and a bunch of other journalists at Parliament Photo by MARTY MELVILLE/AFP via Getty Images

Stevenson agreed that journalists have to be careful about automatically going off the record whenever a source asks for it, because it can leave the journalist exposed. 

“Sometimes crooked business people will say ‘hey, I’ll tell you everything off the record, the real story going on here’. But you know they’re a liar and a crook, and you won’t agree.” Stevenson said in this situation, the best course of action for a journalist is to insist on staying on the record up front. For Sachdeva, his technique tends to be more about sorting out exactly what a source can say on the record first, and then assessing whether going off the record is merited. 

Politicians and businesspeople are also human beings, who socialise with people who work in the same building as them. That means it’s entirely normal for a politician to go out for a drink with a journalist – and in Soper’s view, most would have a reasonable expectation that what they said in a social situation would be off the record. That approach can still suit the journalist. 

In the information-heavy world of political journalism, being on at least cordial terms with sources matters immensely, or else your contact list will dry up. “You’ve got to protect your contacts, really, that’s the ultimate aspect of being a successful journalist,” said Soper. Journalists have to learn to play a long game, argued Soper, and he tells junior staffers in the ZB office they should be very careful to never breach an agreement to be off the record. 

Throughout the interviews with each journalist, the theme of trust came up again and again. It might be assumed that the core skills of journalism are in writing, but really the most important skills are social – a journalist needs people to keep talking to them. The best way to ensure those conversations will continue is to maintain a reputation for being fair, accurate, and honest. 

“Our whole job is information trading, and getting people to give us information. So you have to weigh it up carefully,” said Stevenson. And has she ever broken an agreement to be off the record? 

“I don’t think I’ve ever done it, because I just don’t think you’d survive. New Zealand is very small.” 

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