From on the record to off the record, an interview crash course
Time and time again, I’ll receive emails at 8 p.m. on production nights from students and administrators asking me not to use some piece of information they shared with me during an interview the week before. This, of course, puts me in an awkward situation. I always have to ask, “If you didn’t want me to publish it, why did you say it on the record?”
In the world of journalism, there are many terms that only editors and reporters are expected to know. “Above the fold,” “nutgraf,” “kicker” — these are all terms you don’t have to worry about. Then, there are some terms that everyone should know. The Collegian strives to represent all voices in our community, and to adequately achieve that goal, we may ask to interview you. In fact, you may have already fielded requests for Collegian interviews. That’s why in this week’s Editor’s Corner, I’m going to define three of the most important times in journalism: on the record, on background and off the record.
On the Record
Every (good) journalist will ask you before an interview if the conversation is on the record, or if you give your permission for the conversation to be recorded. If you say yes, this means everything you say can be used in an article. When you are on the record, you are giving the journalist full permission to quote or paraphrase whatever you say in his or her article. Most importantly, you cannot retroactively take information back that you say on the record. You should always choose your words carefully when you are on the record. Consider the question and think about what you’re going to say before you give an answer. And if you don’t like how you said something the first time, feel free to repeat the thought.
Off the Record
“Off the record” means the journalist cannot use what you say in his or her article. Period. To provide information off the record, you must say the information is off the record before you provide the information. You must then clarify when the interview is back on the record (or on background). Usually sources ask to be off the record when they want to give the reporter a confidential story tip, or if they have information they want the reporter to know but cannot (or should not) provide that information themselves. This allows sources to point the reporter to someone who can provide that information on the record. Journalists may look into information you give them off the record to see if they can verify it with other sources. But you will never be identified as the original source.
“On background” is tricky, as many people define this term differently. The Collegian defines “on background” as meaning the reporter can use the information in an article but cannot directly attribute the information to you. This is essentially like an anonymous interview. When you see a CNN or Washington Post article that attributes information to “top White House Officials,” that means the information was provided on background. To provide information on background, you must say the information is on background before you provide the information. You must then clarify when the interview is back on the record. Make sure to tell the interviewer how you would like to be identified. We will generally ask if we can print some sort of vague identifier, like a class year.
None of us at the Collegian likes to publish something that puts the people we interview in awkward positions or at risk in some way. At the same time, we strive to conduct interviews on the record as much as possible for the sake of transparency and accountability. I hope these definitions will help everyone communicate more clearly with journalists in the future. And if you want to talk to us about something — on the record or off — send us a message. We want to hear it.
You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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