In his “Year-Rounder” column last week, Dennis Minsky wrote that disputes between neighbors are sometimes “the most bitter fights of all.” He might be right, judging from the emails and phone calls I get from the combatants in some of these cases.
One recent phone call from a reader started off with his announcing that our conversation was “off the record.” I interrupted to tell him that everything he said was in fact on the record. Before I had a chance to explain why, he hung up on me.
Journalists do have off-the-record conversations with sources, and they are sometimes necessary for understanding complex issues and reporting them accurately. But they are the exception to a basic rule of journalism: reporters and editors gather information from a range of sources, study it, draw conclusions about what is true and what is important, and report what they have found. Readers depend on newspapers naming their sources and describing those sources’ interest in the story to be able to draw their own conclusions about what to believe.
That’s why everything that you say or write to a reporter is by definition on the record — unless, that is, the reporter has explicitly agreed, in advance, to let you speak “off the record.” As I have written before on the subject of anonymous sources, there are times when concealing a source’s identity to protect her from possible retaliation is justified. It might be the only way to get an important story that powerful people want to squash. But those cases are rare.
Where do people get the idea that they can feed their side of a story to a newspaper editor “off the record”? The journalism profession has done this to itself, I fear, by its overreliance on concealing sources instead of revealing them. TV shows and movies about heroic investigative reporting teams have not helped either. A dispute among neighbors over zoning should not and will not be covered like the Watergate break-in or the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church.
I’ve noticed that the people who start conversations with an announcement that they are “off the record” are almost always men. And often they are accustomed to having a good deal of power. One of them recently complained that he hadn’t been consulted on a story about a zoning dispute in his neighborhood. “Not a particularly good journalistic practice but often practiced by Murdoch owned papers,” he told me by email. Then he warned me “not to be an unwitting participant in a PR campaign.”
I wrote back and asked him if there were any errors in the story. There weren’t. It just wasn’t spun the way he wanted it spun — without his being named as the source, of course. This gentleman is a highly successful investment banker with numerous multi-million-dollar houses. He doesn’t need protection; he’s perfectly able to protect himself. And he is welcome to write a letter to the editor for publication and sign his name.