Off-the-record tactic taints transparency

The times are a-changing in journalism. But how much?

The times are a-changing in journalism. But how much?

Two recent pieces of news may be indicative: First, The New York Sun reported that the National Security Agency had, in the past few years, held several off-the-record briefings for DC journalists, pushing across the message that the NSA has secrets that must be kept.

Shortly after that, The Salt Lake Tribune reported on the controversy surrounding the decision by Joe Cannon, editor of Utah's Deseret Morning News, to speak at a high-level conservative political group's conference about how newspapers work. The controversy was not generated by the group's politics, but rather because Cannon agreed to keep anything that happened at the meeting off the record - even though he claimed to be attending as a journalist.

From the perspective of anyone well-versed in PR tactics, these stories may seem rather unremarkable. Off-the-record briefings are one of the oldest and most effective methods in the book, allowing a source or an organization to get to know reporters and drop selected messages in their ears without having to own up to it later. In many areas of politics, national security, and business in which information is both secretive and at a premium, such meetings are accepted by many reporters as the price of speaking to important sources.

But the two stories in recent weeks, both imparting a distinctly negative aroma to journalists' participation in the secret meetings, speak to a larger trend: the demand for openness in how the media does its job. After the Jayson Blair scandal, the push was on for transparency at the highest levels of US journalism. The strange and sad saga of New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who followed her confidential sources right off a cliff, only bolstered the sunshine movement. So are off-the-record briefings set to go the way of smoking in the newsroom, swept away in a tidal wave of reform?

"Reporters tend to think they're in control of these situations, but a manipulative source can use a relationship that relies heavily on confidentiality to release information that a reporter may be less likely to question," says Fred Brown, vice chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists' ethics committee. "Certainly, the Internet plays a new and important role as a watchdog on the watchdogs of the press and [TV]... But I'd like to think reporters' own sense of integrity and a need to show reliability is driving the trend away from off-the-record and anonymous sourcing."

Andy Schotz, a reporter for Hagerstown, MD-based The Herald-Mail and chairman of the SPJ ethics committee, notes that isolated calls have been made among DC journalists for mass boycotts of secret briefings, but that such collusion is unlikely to take place in an atmosphere as competitive as Washington. But he urges reporters to push hard for on-the-record sourcing, particularly in public interest stories.

"Think about the message if we allow nonsensical anonymity requests," Schotz says. "There are thousands of people in this government agency that's funded by your tax money, and not a single one of them will talk to you, through a news story, about what it is they do."

There is no question that top-tier media outlets have a vague antipathy toward off-the-record setups. There is absolutely a question, though, whether that sense of unease is being translated into practice in a larger sense than a few committed reporters arguing with sources to go on the record.

Bob Brody, SVP and media specialist at Ogilvy PR Worldwide, says he has not seen any significant push against such methods by journalists that he deals with - in fact, he says, two CNN producers recently expressed a desire for more off-the-record briefings to get to know his clients.

"The off-the-record briefing is still very much a staple," Brody says, "both as far as our clients are concerned and as far as the media we work with are concerned."

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