Scribbled in the margin: “off the record” information

If there’s one thing journalists hate hearing from their sources it’s the dreaded “this is off the record,” as if that in itself makes the source immune to attacks, questions and criticisms. Some people may think “off the record” comments make the information useless. Not quite. Usually this information at least provides better perspective for the reporter so there’s less chance of misconstruing the words of the source. So not all off the record information is completely useless.

But today, during a casual chat with the manager of an e-waste recycling company, my source followed up half his sentences with “off the record.” I soon found it a waste of energy even picking up my pen to take notes, since almost all of his information was off the record. (I make it a point to literally set my pen down when any source says ‘off the record,’ as an indication and reassurance that yes, “This information is safe with me.”)

However, in response to one of my questions today, the source said, “Well the press never depicts anything realistically anyway, so just say such-and-such.” And that’s when I had to speak up.

Well, well mister, maybe if we were able to “record” more of the things you said, it would be possible to present a clearer picture of what the situation is. It’s kind of hard to report something accurately when sources keep insisting the information is “off the record.”

As careful as a person may want to be with regard to the media, and as skeptical they may be of the media’s intentions, sometimes, being overly caustious and hiding behind the “off the record” wall could potentially create more problems for the source him/herself if you ask me. Sure, sources don’t want to get in trouble from the authorities or be misrepresented, but if they refuse to let an entire chunk of information be presented to the public, chances are high that they’re still not going to be satisfied with what the press publishes.

Lawyers get a bad rep for being liars, business execs for being ruthless, and journalists, well, for not being accurate (sadly). Forgetting the sleazy journalists who only care about sensationalism and an easy buck–sources, the less information you give us, the harder it is for us to paint an accurate picture.

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