Lyons: Understanding boundaries key to speaking with reporters

Despite being in the communications business, sometimes journalists aren’t great at communicating exactly how we do things and why.

There are established methods that professionally trained journalists use: rules, codes of ethics, standards and practices, some of which vary from publication to publication and many of which are fairly universal.

But after reading a short piece on definitions from different journalists who had varying understanding of what “off the record” means, I was reminded that our internal definitions aren’t of much use if the source doesn’t share that definition.

Journalists aren’t stenographers. We have many conversations with sources, and every word spoken does not appear in a story. Occasionally sources ask that those conversations are “off the record” or “on background.”

While there are plenty of good journalism professors, some eggheads who spent more time in faculty development meetings than covering an actual beat say that everything said to a journalist should be presumed to be on the record – meaning fair game for publication.

That’s not practical in the real world, although journalists must be very careful with “off the record” conversations. With higher-level sources, such as elected officials, they should be avoided.

Sometimes someone who would face repercussions from their employer if identified as a source will give you useful information that you can verify elsewhere. When these sources are in a position to know information, often better than their superiors, the news can be valuable.

The discussion made me recall one of my nastiest blowups with a key source many years ago on a homicide investigation. The source told me a good deal of information “off the record,” and I agreed that I would not use the information provided by the source.

However, my definition of “off the record” was that I would not use his information for publication or identify him to anyone, but I would use it to find other sources and other means to gather the story, which I did.

After the story ran, we had a loud “discussion” punctuated by the colorful language sometimes used between cops and journalists. His definition of “off the record” was that it couldn’t be published at all.

I wasn’t backing down from my definition, and I still won’t. First of all, if you don’t want something to end up in a publication, don’t tell a reporter. Secondly, sources can’t just lock stories into an “off the record” vault because they mentioned it to you.

It took a little time to repair the damage with the source, but we later respected each other once again as we do to this day.

While I still think I was right about the journalism, I’ve since learned I was wrong about the approach. I operated under a faulty assumption of what my source believed our agreement was.

Had he said, “I’m going to give you some information that you can never use for any purpose,” I would have never agreed to have the conversation. I enjoy a good yarn as much as the next guy, but if the information is newsworthy it’s my job to report it.

Understanding the terms of an agreement with a journalist before the conversation begins is wise for both the journalist and the source. Reporters should assume nothing in those agreements, just as they wouldn’t assume things in their copy.

• Kevin Lyons is news editor of the Northwest Herald. Reach him at 815-526-4505 or email him at kelyons@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinLyonsNWH.

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