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The News Editorial: What is 'off the record?'

This Sunday marks the start of the observance of National Newspaper Week, where I traditionally like to try and educate the public about something regarding the role of the newspaper but this year I would like to talk about “off the record.”

The phrase “off the record” is bantered about quite a lot anymore, usually in jest but occasionally people say will say it when covering a meeting or in the midst of an interview.

There are a few things to know about “off the record.” The Poynter Report senior media writer Tom Jones said it best in defining what “off the record” should be — “A source should ask a reporter first if something can be off the record. Then the reporter can agree or refuse. The source then can decide whether or not they want to share that information.”

In The Poynter Report for Sept. 20, Jones was describing an incident between two journalists where one journalist emailed another journalist some news under the subject line “off the record” and the other journalist published the information from the email.

On one hand the journalist who published did not break any “rules” per se, but ethically is another question entirely.

While I know the journalism rules regarding “off the record” many times, OK, most of the time, the person at the meeting or being interviewed does not.

I have had instances when people have asked for something to be off the record and waited for me to put my pen down, stop typing and/or stop recording. By so doing I am agreeing that it will be off the record. That said I have on occasion, depending on what was said off the record, tried to have them give me some of the information on the record if I feel it is necessary for the story.

I had one instance at the Basin Republican Rustler when the commissioners meetings were televised by TCT that the sheriff was speaking at the public meeting and turned to me and said “don’t print that” and I smiled, pointed to the camera and said “you can’t have it both ways.”

Since the meeting was public and was being televised I did not agree to it being “off the record.”

I try to be respectful of people when they use the phrase “off the record” or even when they ask “don’t put this in the paper.” Often times it is not something I would have included in the newspaper.

But, don’t kid yourself, it does go back in the vault to perhaps revisit at a later time to get something on the record.

And, then there are the “off the record” comments made in jest, and trust me every journalist gets it – at the grocery store, at a family reunion, at a party, at just about any social gathering.

You hear the “watch what you say it may end up in the newspaper.”

So I will set the record straight here. Unless you are my husband or my best friend, both of whom give me fodder for my columns on an almost regular basis, what you and I visit about at the store, downtown, or in a social setting will not end up in the newspaper.

If we start talking about something I will want to do a news story on I will ask if I can give you a call later for a formal interview. I may ask about something you told me at that time to have you give me the same information “on the record” if you will.

Rest assured, you are safe in visiting with me or any of the staff at the Northern Wyoming News in a social setting.

I have also striven to make sure people know when I am at a gathering as a citizen or as a journalist and I encourage my staff to do the same, so that there is never any confusion.

So relax and go ahead and say hi next time you see me. It won’t end up in the newspaper …. But, if it is newsworthy, funny or entertaining you can expect a call later asking if it is OK if what you said or did will be in the newspaper.

In fact, the aforementioned best friend gave me a great story the other day and I told her “You know I have to write about this right?” She said, “Yes, just wait a while.” It was somewhat embarrassing but funny. But, she’s my best friend so I will wait at least another week or two.

--Karla Pomeroy

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