Bilton's Tweet Sparks Debate About 'Off the Record' with Little Agreement About What it Means

A curious little conversation flared up in the last 24 hours about the journalistic conventions surrounding the term "off the record."

On Wednesday morning The New York Times' Nick Bilton, lead writer for the Bits Blog, tweeted out this nugget:

"Off record chat w/ Facebook employee. Me: How does Zuck feel about privacy? Response: [laughter] He doesn't believe in it."

In response, Wired Magazine's Eliot Van Buskirk suggested that Bilton abused his off-the-record promise, quoting NYU's journalism handbook which reads, " 'Off the record' restricts the reporter from using the information the source is about to deliver."

Bilton responded with another tweet, informing his followers that his source understood he would be reporting the information without attribution. Then everybody else weighed in. And few agree about what "off the record" means.

But that's OK. Good reporters do what Bilton did. They clarify the terms of engagement with their source. Journalists who insist on following a hard and fast set of rules will find themselves in trouble on this topic. NYU has a great J-school, but their handbook is overly rigid on this and will lead reporters astray. It doesn't allow for the confusion throughout the profession and the general public over this term.

Even if everyone in a single newsroom agrees on what "off the record" means, that doesn't change the fact that the rest of the population doesn't share a common understanding of the term. And now we live in a world where significant journalism grows in a variety of gardens, including the traditional professional newsroom as well as the vast Fifth Estate (all the rest of the world doing journalism). The terms are getting even murkier. Therefore, it's always the writer's duty to clarify the terms with a source.

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Some sources deal with lots of reporters, who could be operating with different definitions. Some sources have never worked with a reporter and their only reference point is what they've read in crime novels. That's why every reporter has to make sure he and his source have a common understanding, no matter what the handbook says.

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    Kelly McBride

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its vice president.


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