(Citizen journalist Anna (Nevada City Focus)Â HaynesÂ saidÂ she oftenÂ has questions about how to coverÂ her local community. “What we need is a Dear Abby for citizen journalists,” she told me on the phone.Â I laughed. Then sheÂ sent meÂ the question below and I thoughtÂ a Q&AÂ might be useful.Â If you have a how-to or ethical question regarding your citizen blogÂ 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,Â “for the record, could you tell me,”Â (then the question)Â 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. ButÂ another journalist told me no, it’sÂ on the record becauseÂ both people have to agree in orderÂ to go off the record. Who is correct? (Anna Haynes, Nevada City Focus.)
Answer:Â I consider this a tossup. A sophisticatedÂ interviewee should get the interviewer’s consent before presuming that a comment is off the record.Â Since the respondent was a journalist that person should have written back and said, “I’ll tell youÂ but only off the record,” giving you a chance toÂ accept.
However, I would still honor the off the recordÂ condition imposed by the respondent. TheÂ relationship between a reporter (including a citizen reporter) and a source is almostÂ always more important than any single bit ofÂ information. TheÂ respondent in this case may have been busy andÂ had no time to do the back and forth e-mail drill before answering. They may have felt they were doingÂ you a favor by answering, even off the record.
You know the context. You can defend eitherÂ decision (to honor or not the OTR comment). But the sender did impose the condition,Â and my instinct says give them benefit of the doubt.Â Remember you have to live in that town. You areÂ building a reputation. You want to be the person whoÂ can be trusted, not the person who’ll “getcha” ifÂ they get a chance.