Questions about material delivered by anonymous sources have fueled recent political stories. But off-the-record promises are thorny for business journalists as well.
People might reasonably ask to go off the record to protect their job. A company might be wary of connecting itself to a statement that could make it legally liable for an event, action or policy. However, problems can arise in the use of OTR material: lack of clarity of the promise, trust issues for the audience and potential for manipulation on the part of the source.
Lack of clarity
One issue with OTR is multiple interpretations. In my reporting, I always ask what someone means by off-the-record and regularly hear different answers:
• The material and quotes are available for use as long as the reporter doesn’t identify the speaker.
• The material is available, as long as the reporter doesn’t identify the speaker and don’t use direct quotes.
• A reporter can use the material as background but cannot attribute it to the source or his or her affiliated organization.
• A reporter cannot use the material at all, other than to better understand the situation.
By clarifying the intent, you might find a source wishes to avoid attribution but will freely allow you to use the information. Sometimes a source will invoke the State Department’s definition: “Nothing of what the journalist is told may be used in the story. The information is meant only for the education of the reporter.” You won’t know what the source intends unless you ask.
When you conduct OTR interviews, you collect material that you may not be able to connect to a source. Readers frequently mistrust such information. They most likely don’t know you or your ethics. For all they know, you could be making something up, or the source could be spinning a yarn without risking any blame.
There may be times you need information only available from an OTR interview, but consider carefully whether the result will really help your reporting or if you’ll undercut its credibility.
When a company representative gives you an OTR comment stipulating the strictest condition—you cannot use the information at all, although it may deepen your understanding of the issue—the company likely wants to manipulate you. What you hear might influence how you report and interpret facts, but you cannot associate that influence with the company. The OTR information becomes a source of bias hidden from the audience. A company also might want to keep specific information out of an article, and so give it to you OTR close to your deadline, so you can’t use it.
You could try to find another source of the same information. Better still, say no and keep digging. This recently happened to me with a large tech company. A spokesperson said during a conversation that she wanted to speak only off the record about a public issue. I asked her to clarify her meaning and got the strict version of OTR. My response was that if I couldn’t do anything with the information, there wasn’t much reason to have it. When I wrote the story, I mentioned my refusal to accept the secret information. Shortly after, I received an email from the company with more extensive information and was able to include it in an on-the-record update. Chances are that I wouldn’t have received it had I agreed to an OTR discussion.