How and when to break your off-the-record promises

The most powerful man in journalism had to decide on Sunday morning whether to keep a promise to the most powerful man in the world to keep a conversation off-the-record. It was a no-brainer for A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times, to break his promise to the president of the United States.

It brought to mind a different decision, made nine months ago by The Washington Post, to break an off-the-record promise to a source who turned out to be lying in an attempt to plant a story, in order to discredit the Post.

It’s a good reminder for journalists everywhere that while off-record-promises are critical to our credibility, they are not sacrosanct. Instead they are part of a two-way street. And these two examples are the most common reasons for journalists to break the promise.

  • If the source is proven to be lying, the promise is not valid.
  • And if the source discusses the conversation on the record, then the promise is also no longer valid.

When can you break a promise to a source to keep something confidential? Those two reasons are pretty much the whole list. A third possibility might be if you and the source mutually agree to go public, but that’s not really breaking a promise, it's renegotiating a deal.

But there was no renegotiating the arrangement between Sulzberger and Trump. Instead there were actions and reactions. At 8:30 a.m. Sunday, President Donald Trump casually tweeted that he’d met with Sulzberger to discuss “fake news,” thus divulging the meeting and implying that the off-the-record status of the conversation was no longer in play.

The tweet was deceptive from the start. The meeting had actually happened nine days earlier, on July 20. And it’s not clear why Trump chose Sunday morning to make it public. It was his first tweet of the day and his first post on Twitter in almost two days.

RELATED: Why off-the-record is a trap reporters should avoid

Sulzberger appeared prepared because a short time later, the Times issued a five-paragraph account of the meeting in a press release. And later in the day Sulzberger did an interview with a Times reporter.

It all begs some existential questions (which of course we’ve dealt with before):

What does off-the-record even mean anymore? (Not everyone agrees.)

Should a president ever be off the record? (Remember that time Obama called Kanye a jackass?)

Is there a better way to go off the record? (Yes.)

Is it ever really safe for a journalist to go off the record? (Just ask yourself, would you really go to jail for this story?)

Confidential conversations are an indispensable tool for journalists who seek to inform citizens of the activities of their elected officials. It was hardly surprising that Trump carelessly disregarded a promise he personally requested. It should make all journalists wary of granting a similar courtesy to this president, because it seems likely that the agreement will be used to manipulate the truth. 

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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 senior vice president.

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