Off-the-record chat – scenario

Image by Media Helping Media released via Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0
Image by Media Helping Media released via Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0

Briefings, background information, and editorial control

What should a journalist do with off-the-record information? Should they agree to conditions on its use? Should they ignore any conditions and do the story anyway? Or should they use what they have been told as background information and dig further? Try our scenario and decide what you would do in the circumstances.

Dealing with off-the-record information

You are working as a reporter on a local radio station, which is situated in the city centre close to the police headquarters.

Journalists and police officers are often found mixing in the local pub after their shifts have finished.

In the city where you work the journalists have a lot of dealings with the police.

Many are on first-name terms, having crossed paths in the course of their work.

The pub is a good place for journalists to pick up leads and background information.

You are having a beer with a couple of journalist pals, when two police officers you know join you for a drink. They, too, have just finished the late shift.

As you chat, one of the officers takes you aside and says that, earlier in the evening, vice squad officers working undercover in the city’s red-light district saw a prominent public figure driving his car slowly down a street which is well known for kerb-crawling.

Later they saw the same car parked in a side street. When they checked, they found the man in the back seat with a woman. The woman wasn’t his partner.

The officer tells you that the man was given a caution, and says the police were “taking it no further”.

He names the man, describes the circumstances in some detail, but then says the story is “off the record”, and that it mustn’t get out.

He says a surveillance operation is continuing, and tells the journalists not to mention it to anyone else.

What should you do?

The following are three options. There will be many more, but in this module we are looking at the following three.

Option 1 – run with the story

This has the makings of a lead story. The off-the-record status of the information has no legal bearing; you haven’t signed anything. If the officer gets into trouble, that’s his problem.

You have the name of the man, you have the location of the incident, the time it took place, you have a description of the car, and details of what vice squad officers saw when they shone their light into the vehicle.

You have enough for a 30-second voice report for the next bulletin. You should tell the newsdesk you have a new lead, head back to the newsroom, and get working on it as soon as you can.

Option 2 – keep your mouth shut

You should respect the informal off-the-record arrangement you have with your contact in the local police.

The officer has given you the details only because he trusted you. He has told you that the story “mustn’t get out”.

If you break this confidence, it will damage a productive relationship, which might take years to repair.

You need to preserve the close relationship your news organisation has with the authorities.

So you should agree not to mention the incident, not even to your news editor, but to consider it valuable background information related to an on-going investigation.

Option 3 – refer up and investigate further

You should call your news editor and share the information, making it clear that the officer had told you that he was speaking off the record after he revealed the details.

There is still so much missing from the story. Apart from the chat in the pub with the officer, you have nothing else to go on. You have one source only.

You and your news editor need to discuss the significance of the information. Together you will need to assess the public interest aspects of what has happened.

You will also need to consider why the police officer was willing to share the information.

Then you need to decide whether the alleged incident requires further investigation.

At this stage you should certainly not consider putting anything out on air.

Off-the-record briefings

Off-the-record briefings are common in journalism. They can be useful in helping journalists research background information, and they can provide context about the issues reporters are investigating.

But such briefings can also put a journalist in an awkward position.

It’s possible an off-the-record briefing is given because the person sharing the information wants the journalist to research the matter for a variety of unknown reasons. In that case the journalist might be being used by the information provider.

It could be that the person sharing the information is afraid it will get out, and is trying to pre-empt the situation by sharing a version of events in the hope that the journalist will be content with what has been shared and distracted from a bigger story.

Or it might be that the journalist has simply witnessed some loose talk, that the person sharing the information has realised they made a mistake in sharing it, and they are trying to recover the situation by saying what they shared was off the record.

A lot depends on the circumstances.

Some off-the-record chats will take place formally, others will be chance meetings with contacts who have information to share. Most will involve information providers who don’t want to go on the record as having shared it.

Specialist correspondents and beat reporters often depend on receiving confidential information from their contacts as a valuable part of their research.

Most media organisations will have a policy regarding off-the-record briefings. Some will accept them, others will feel that they compromise their ability to seek out facts and tie them to a controlled version of events.

You need to know your employer’s stance on the issue. This should have been made clear when you joined the company, and during your training.

This scenario is not about a briefing with a specialist in a particular subject, it’s a chat with a casual contact in a pub late at night.

How would you deal with the situation?

Let’s look at the three options set out above

Option 1 – run with the story

If you follow option 1, you would be broadcasting information which hadn’t been checked.

It’s late at night, the officer who told you about the incident had heard it second-hand from the vice squad.

What they told him was a colourful, off-the-cuff description of what they said they had seen. It was not an official report.

There is nobody to quote. You have simply been given a tip-off that something has happened. A man found with a prostitute has been given a caution. That is all.

If you write a 30-second voice report at this point, you will be at risk of defamation of character, based on unsubstantiated information. That is not journalism.

Option 2 – keep your mouth shut

In this option, the reporter is keen to preserve the cosy relationship he has with the local police.

He knows that if he reports what was said in the pub, the police might not open up to him in the future.

That could damage future newsgathering efforts.

The reporter is quite content to let the police officer rule on what he can or can’t do with the information.

But, in doing so, the reporter has allowed the line between information-sharing and editorial control to be crossed.

That is not a healthy position.

Option 3 – refer up and investigate further

This is the preferred course of action.

You have been given background information, which you and your news editor now need to consider.

By applying the public interest test you will be able to assess what to do next, and how much effort should be put into further research, if any.

It could be that the man in question has been outspoken in the past about the need to clean up the sex industry in the city. Perhaps he’s been campaigning about sex trafficking.

If so, there might well be a public interest justification for further investigation.

You might consider putting a file together on the prominent public figure who is alleged to have been cautioned so that you are ready when and if the news finally breaks.

Such a file would be accessed by your online team, too, and probably contain a biography, videos and photographs of him in public life, and other background material, so that your news organisation is ready to broadcast and publish a “rise and fall of” story, if appropriate.

But as for writing a piece for the next bulletin – no, there is nothing to report.

Not because the information was shared off the record, but because you don’t have any independent sources offering verified facts that have been double-checked to ensure that the information you broadcast is accurate, fair, and in the public interest.

All the scenarios on Media Helping Media are based on real events.

Related training modules

Applying the public interest test to journalism

Public interest – scenario

Respecting privacy as a journalist