Getting Away from “Off the Record”

The Sunshine Initiative's letter is a good first step

Earlier this week, a coalition of news organizations led by the Sunshine in Government Initiative sent a letter to hundreds of D.C. area press secretaries. The gist: when public officials such as congressional aides or federal agency staffers address large audiences in public settings, it’s unreasonable for them to stipulate that their remarks are “off the record.”

The letter, which Washington Post ombudsman Andy Alexander blogged about when it was in draft form five weeks ago, explains why it’s problematic for public officials to go off the record at a conference or similar gathering: “Presentations at public meetings by their nature do not involve classified information or other information that must be withheld from the public… Keeping public remarks by officials at all levels in the government on the record will greatly improve transparency and accountability for taxpayers.” In other words, comments by public officials are fair game for public consumption; participation in public debate is not the prerogative of favored audiences. The letter also notes the oddity inherent in declaring information off-limits for publication by journalists while the media-savvy audience members at these events may be happily tweeting away.

It’s a good thing that this letter was sent, and if the tone is a bit mild—the signatories “ask that government officials… start treating their comments at widely attended events as on the record”—that may be appropriate as an opening gesture, especially since the think tanks and other third parties that host these events may feel caught in the middle. Hopefully the letter will, as one coordinator of the effort said, “open a dialogue to address this problem.”

At the same time, it’s worth pointing out that journalists are complicit in their plight. A culture in which public officials feel comfortable stipulating that their remarks are off the record, and confident that that stipulation will be respected, exists today because journalists allowed it to take root. The whole concept of “off the record,” after all, is supposed to be a privilege granted by the reporter; or, if you prefer, a contract agreed to by a reporter and a source for a specific reason.

It’s hard to imagine how such a rule would even apply when a speaker is addressing an audience—and the fact that speakers describe such remarks as “off the record” shows just how slippery the term has become. If people in public office have come to believe that they can declare their words “off the record” any time they choose, it’s because the reporters they’ve encountered haven’t disabused them of the notion.

This doesn’t mean that journalists should jump on every political slip of the tongue—as Spencer Ackerman recently noted, there’s a difference between an attention-grabbing quote and real news, and there’s judgment involved in knowing the difference. But people in the public eye—and especially those in public office—should be operating under the assumption that when they give a speech, it will be reported.

Of course, once a new norm is established, it’s perilous to be the one to break it—would you want to be the reporter barred from future events after publicizing a Hill staffer’s ostensibly secret remarks? That’s why it was important that this letter come from a broad coalition, rather than just one news outlet, however powerful. And that’s why, if this initial step doesn’t produced the hoped-for results, news organizations should take the next step in concert, too: Publicly state that they will no longer abide by these blanket “off the record” declarations, and start reporting what people say.

Would this have the effect of preventing some people from talking at all? It probably would, at least temporarily. But the press should be confident in its ability to report the news anyway. And in the long run, a culture of greater transparency and openness will serve journalists and readers alike.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.