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

Let’s talk about “off-the-record” — what it is, what it isn’t, why it’s a bad convention that’s antithetical to what we do as journalists, and why reporters should resist having off-the-record conversations.

There seems to be some confusion about the rules and ethics of off-the-record reporting following stories by Axios and The Daily Beast Friday night on a briefing by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly that they didn’t attend, but learned about from sources who did. Axios reported that Kelly said President “Trump himself was probably responsible for a significant number of the stories about staffing chaos.” By any standard, this is news — that the chief of staff says the president is behind reports of White House turmoil.

The Daily Beast’s sources were shocked that Kelly revealed to “a room filled with White House officials and political reporters” a humiliating detail about Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: that the secretary, who’s in his job till the end of March, was suffering from a stomach bug and on the toilet when Kelly told him to cut short an official trip in Africa. It’s distasteful but newsworthy that the chief of staff told a scatalogical story about a cabinet secretary who was axed by Trump. Was Kelly seeking to ingratiate himself with a president who is reported to have doubts about Kelly too? What sort of standards for behavior is Kelly setting in the White House?

For journalists who didn’t attend the off-the-record briefing, it’s a no-brainer. They did nothing wrong by doing shoe-leather reporting on what was said and writing it. Both stated in their stories that they didn’t attend the briefing, nor make any agreement. Neither said if their sources were White House officials or other reporters.

As Axios’ Jonathan Swan told me: “I’m surprised there’s even a debate about it. I don’t know of one single serious journalist who wouldn’t do exactly what I did yesterday. If you obtain information from a room that you were not in and it’s newsworthy, you report it.” Swan said his only ethical concern was whether the information was true, adding, “There’s a good reason the White House isn’t disputing a single word in my story. They can’t, because it’s an entirely accurate account of what happened.”

Swan is right. I spent 10 years reporting in Washington under presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump and the rules are the same: If you didn’t make an off-the-record agreement, you can report whatever you learn from reliable sources who talk on-the-record, on background or on deep background.

First, some definitions: “On the record” means you can use your information and name and quote your source. “On background” means the source doesn’t want to be named, but is willing to be identified as a “White House official,” “State Department official,” “Senate aide” or whatever. “On deep background” means you can report the information, but you can’t cite where it came from, which poses a challenge for news organizations with high standards of sourcing. “Off the record” means you can’t report it.

On sensitive stories such as national security, corruption, abuse of power and sexual harassment, to name a few, journalists often report truthful information that reliable sources have given them on the condition that the source isn’t named, because their job, livelihood or safety may be at risk But anonymous sourcing is not the same as off-the-record.

So what about journalists who agreed to Kelly’s off-the-record briefing? That’s also a no-brainer: They can’t report the information, nor can they repeat it to a journalist who intends to report it. Breaking our agreements — especially for stories that aren’t of huge public interest — gives journalism a bad name at a time when public trust in our industry is already low.

One caveat here: It’s standard practice for reporters to share important off-the-record information — in confidence and shielded by the same no-use agreement — with their editor and co-workers on the same beat. I covered Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry for Bloomberg, and both talked off-the-record regularly with the small group of reporters who traveled on their plane. We didn’t record or report those conversations, but reporters from the handful of news agencies, national newspapers and TV networks in the travel pool shared notes with our own editors and fellow beat reporters back home. The idea is to inform and guide your team’s reporting, and the understanding is that your colleagues can’t use the material either since you made a commitment on behalf of your organization.

Here’s where it starts to get complicated. No one tells a reporter something without a motive. In Washington, officials want to influence our coverage. As Swan says, “Any leaked information we get is from people doing what they’re not supposed to do: telling us things that happen in a private meeting. Ninety percent of my information is unauthorized.”

He’s right again. The vast majority of reporting in Washington comes from officials who leak, and the Trump White House is as leaky as the Titanic. If officials truly don’t want something known, they don’t say it in a room full of aides and reporters.

When officials share information and journalists report it, they have their agenda and we’re doing our jobs: sharing relevant news from reliable sources. Two of the most important stories of modern times — Watergate and the Pentagon Papers — wouldn’t have been reported were it not for leakers who gave journalists information intended to be reported, so God bless the leakers. (Those stories were based on unnamed sources, of course, but not on off-the-record agreements).

That brings us back to why off-the-record is such a dangerous convention. Being told something that’s off-the-record puts us in a terrible bind. We can’t un-know something. What if we are told something that could be as big as Watergate? If we sit on such information, we’re derelict in our duty to inform. Yet if we made a commitment to stay silent, we’re bound by it, except in the most extreme circumstances.

Some reporters refuse to attend off-the-record meetings because they would rather work their own sources than be told something they can’t use. After the Kelly briefing, The New York Times couldn’t report what its reporters heard at the briefing, but were put in the odd position of quoting Axios’ reporting. The White House Correspondents’ Association, State Department Correspondents’ Association and others have long pressed officials for more access, more on-the-record briefings and less off-the-record.

I asked Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for the New York Times and one of the most respected reporters in Washington, who’s covered every president since Bill Clinton, for his take. Baker sees no problem with what Axios and Daily Beast did — “that’s just good reporting. And it puts those of us who did attend in a tough position … hamstrung by the rules.”

In my view, off-the-record is a cop-out for officials to share information without fingerprints or accountability. Politicians and officials in Washington tell journalists things knowing they will seek out other sources who may eventually lead them to a usable story, but there’s too much room for interpretation of how far a reporter can go in trying to confirm information elsewhere.

When Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, was Washington bureau chief, he had a rule that reporters couldn’t have off-the-record meetings with the president. There were times when his reporters couldn’t avoid being part of an off-the-record briefing, though, as when the president comes to the back of the plane on Air Force One to chat.

“It puts us in a terrible position,” Baker said. “People who go off-the-record with us want us to know it — they want to influence our coverage. … But off-the-record is a trap. If the president tells you something off-the-record, and two days later you hear the same thing from someone else and report it, the president is going to think you violated it, even if you didn’t.”

Imagine the president tells you off-the-record that his negotiations with a foreign leader are a sham, and war is inevitable. That’s critical information in the public interest, but you can’t report it. Can you ask a White House aide if they ever heard the president say that? Can you ask the State Department about the president’s view of negotiations? Or should you forget it, since you wouldn’t know this if the president hadn’t told you? There’s no hard-and-fast rule or convention on this; different reporters interpret it differently.

We earn public trust by providing true and accurate information and being clear with our audience and our sources about the ground rules under which we gather news. And that, in my view, is why reporters should avoid off-the-record conversations. Journalists should insist that sources share tips that we can report, or at the very least, use the information to seek confirmation from others. If news is in the public interest and we can’t inform the public, we’re not doing our jobs.

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    Indira Lakshmanan

    Indira Lakshmanan is the executive editor at the Pulitzer Center a Boston Globe columnist. She also served as the first Newmark chair in journalism ethics at Poynter.

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