When is the idea of off the record talks a good idea for a journalist? With media credibility dropping and public figures railing against their professional methods, there is a strong dose of skepticism about how reporters gather information and whether or not those details are accurate and credible.
For all the secrecy and doubt about this practice, there are key benefits for specialists to turn off the recorder or put down the pen and just have an unofficial discussion with a source. It is a common event that occurs with a majority of reporting.
Establishing credibility with a source is not achieved overnight. Journalists know that their title alone won’t empower people to open up to them about sensitive information. By engaging in off the record conversations, reporters have a chance to demonstrate that they can exercise discretion and withhold details that even their editors would love to print. If they show that they can keep those details private, then they will be worthwhile talking with about this story or future events.
Ideally the goal of off the record conversations between a journalist and a source is to influence and push them towards remarks that will be publicized. This objective will see the speakers name with direct quotes that make for enticing reading for subscribers and media outlets.
One of the benefits of engaging in off the record talks with identities is to get more context with a story. Public officials, celebrities and people considered “in the know” would otherwise feel limited about what they can say knowing that they could receive an amount of backlash. However, by disclosing a certain amount of information that is not for print, they know they will be pointing the journalist in another direction that will be of interest to their story. There will be no footprint of their involvement, but they understand that the further investigations will be made with the correct departments.
Although the identity of the subject with off the record talks will remain hidden, there is still the chance for the reporter to add some generic reference to their profile. “A government department official,” or “an officer on the scene” or “a family member” would be used to add another layer of description to give further context to the story, outlining that the details do come from a trusted party.
There are benefits for reporters and journalists to use the off the record method from time to time, but it is a tool that is also helpful for the subject. Especially in the domain of federal politics, elected officials on all sides of the isle will use these connections to further their own agenda while closing off conversations with media figures who they are not receptive to.
All of the onus and responsibility for off the record conversations do lie with the reporter, but there are moments where hidden sources in business and politics will attempt to use these talks to shape the narrative. That type of abuse could see them lose those privileges and alter the landscape for reporters to publish more information than they would otherwise like.
The very concept of off the record discussions are not legally binding. If something is mentioned at this time and that content is leaked to the press, that will breakdown the trust that has been established, but there is no recourse for legal action purely on the basis that they were not deemed on the record. It is a practice designed to build relationships, add context to a story, create more avenues for investigation and to keep the lines of communication open. When journalists adhere to these principles, they will remain in a position to keep those in power to account without befriending the participant.