The recent Rolling Stone article that got General Stanley McChrystal sacked as commander of US forces in Afghanistan has also raised an important issue about what it means to go “off the record” with a reporter. (See our related June 23 CommCore blog below.)
For the past couple days the Huffington Post http://tinyurl.com/2ausb5m has featured a debate as to whether the Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings violated a couple of unspoken journalism rules about on and off the record comments, and whether are there different rules for interviews with officers in a theater of war. The first posting – very critical of Hastings – was from CBS’s Lara Logan http://tinyurl.com/26ewchp. It was followed by a sharp retort in defense of Hastings by Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibi http://huff.to/9DznP6.
If journalists can vehemently disagree in public over the “off-the-record” rules – in a theater of war or not- what are the people they cover supposed to think? At CommCore, we tell our clients that in the vast majority of situations there is no such thing as “off the record.” Assume when you are being interviewed – and before and after the interview- that anything you say, can and will be used by a reporter, blogger or other interested party.
What are our exceptions to the rule? You only go off the record if:
- You are with a reporter you know well and have a relationship with. The relationship stays with the reporter, not with the news outlet.
- You know beforehand that you can’t get fired or in trouble if your comments are attributed to you later.
- You and the journalist understand that he/she will lose something valuable, i.e. access, if he/she violates the trust.
That’s a pretty big hurdle. What’s your view? Was Michael Hastings taking advantage of soldiers being chatty in a bar? Have you ever been burned by not-for-attribution or off the record comments? Have these rules changed?