Who asked what; when, where & why?


(Citizen journalist Anna (Nevada City Focus) Haynes said she often has questions about how to cover her local community. “What we need is a Dear Abby for citizen journalists,” she told me on the phone. I laughed. Then she sent me the question below and I thought a Q&A might be useful. If you have a how-to or ethical question regarding your citizen blog send it to tomabate_book (at) hotmail.com. I’ll look for an answer or pointer and share the results here.)

Question: If I e-mail someone asking a question, and specify, “for the record, could you tell me,” (then the question)  and the person replies “Off the record” etcetera, is it off the record? The respondent (who is a journalist) said yes it was off the record. But another journalist told me no, it’s on the record because both people have to agree in order to go off the record. Who is correct? (Anna Haynes, Nevada City Focus.)

Answer:  I consider this a tossup. A sophisticated interviewee should get the interviewer’s consent before presuming that a comment is off the record. Since the respondent was a journalist that person should have written back and said, “I’ll tell you but only off the record,” giving you a chance to accept.
However, I would still honor the off the record condition imposed by the respondent. The relationship between a reporter (including a citizen reporter) and a source is almost always more important than any single bit of information. The respondent in this case may have been busy and had no time to do the back and forth e-mail drill before answering. They may have felt they were doing you a favor by answering, even off the record.

You know the context. You can defend either decision (to honor or not the OTR comment). But the sender did impose the condition, and my instinct says give them benefit of the doubt. Remember you have to live in that town. You are building a reputation. You want to be the person who can be trusted, not the person who’ll “getcha” if they get a chance.