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In defense of “Off the Record” and back room conversations

Transparency is a modern virtue.

Its pursuit is among the more commonly inalienable constants of news media. But like a child who needs to be exposed to germs to develop resistance, we can benefit from some level of privacy among leaders. Transparency of power can lead to polarization. Some conversations need to be worked out in private.

Of course that doesn’t sit quite right with many newsrooms — or among many civic minded people. A symbolic scourge of journalism is the back room conversation — dealmaking without public discourse.

But it’s so much more complicated.

I’m several years into a board membership of the Pen and Pencil Club, the 1892-founded, Philadelphia-based private affiliation group for journalists. One of our many traditions is to host regular “Off the Record” sessions, during which we invite political, civic and business leaders to be questioned by our press corps members in a dialogue that’s meant to inform coverage — but can’t be directly cited or sourced.

These events are fun and varied — and I’d personally say productive. But every once in a while, someone smart, serious and meaningful questions the appropriateness of letting important people say what they want without fear of it being publicized.

One of them is longtime newsman and Temple University School of Media Communications Dean David Boardman, who has voiced his concern since moving to the Philadelphia area a couple years ago. Recently I connected him to a pair of our longtime P&P club leaders to help inform a commentary he wrote in opposition to our event series policy. A few notable local editors tweeted their agreement with him.

Great reporters coax the best out of those whom they cover. They make politicians more honest, business leaders more straight forward and hold any assortment of other groups accountable. The inherent power of publishing comes from the people, their audience and the latent threat of rallying them to action.

A reporter, the thinking goes, should limit what she knows that her readers don’t.

So if you promise someone in power that they can speak to a room full of the reporters who speak to the people without anyone else knowing what is said, aren’t you failing at your core function?

In my mind? No.

One of my great fears about my fellow practitioners of journalism is that though we once had constraints about how much could ever be “on the record” (there are only so many printed words on only so many printed pages), that has fundamentally changed with the web. And we never agreed to update our assumptions.

Now, from blog posts and social media, there is no end to the ways to supplement any story or interview we file.Short-form publishing means there is no detail too small, no update or mulling not worth sharing. Everything is on the record. And we thought that was going to make everything good — sunlight disinfects, they say. And of course, in a great many ways, that’s true.

But humans make mistakes. Humans need space to safely evolve opinions and talk things through.

Reporters are meant to curate for readers in pursuit of the closest approximation of the truth. We are meant to be agents of positive and productive outcomes, by building consensus and fact-checking for intentions and that truth. During those P&P Off the Record sessions, I’ve seen reporters followup on a question they’ve asked in a public setting (a press conference, say) to try to clarify or get more context that can happen behind the scenes.

(Nevermind that in this age, many speakers don’t much believe off-the-record is possible, so the policy is more for attendees who have less journalism training and for some good ol’ marketing. We do announce the off-the-record policy before each event).

My viewpoint is influenced by my work. I’m in a transitioning role — less and less reporter and more and more publisher and small business owner. That transition combined with the role we’ve always had at Technically Media to get as close to our community as we can to tell the story as accurately as possible has put me in lots of interesting meetings. Meetings that have to be far more off the record than when I’d use the phrase as a negotiating tactic with sources to get as much perspective as possible. (I remember negotiating a major off-the-record agreement to track and inform an open data movement in 2011.)

And what I’ve learned in these meetings is that I don’t believe transparency is always productive, at least not right away. I’ve been in conversations where a legislator is allowing herself to be vulnerable, to ask questions and share unprepared perspective because she simply isn’t prepared yet. She is learning about, say, an opposing view or politician. She’s learning and reporters are informing, clarifying, learning too. That can’t happen with the cameras are rolling.

Let me be clear: I don’t care first about journalism. I don’t care about attorney generals or city council presidents or state senators. I care about what we’re all supposed to be working on together: making a safer, smarter, more inclusive and happier community. And I happen to believe that journalism and city councils can help get that mission done.

Reporters and legislators are not adversaries. They are checks and balances. The goal is to get the truest story. Transparency is a tool. So is dialogue.

In truth, my belief is that bein off the record let’s a leader speak more freely, without fearing each word can be used against her, even if her ideas might leak out. Today, she surely assumes the idea will get out, the parsing of individual words won’t or can’t ethically. Assuming everything is spin presupposes all relationships begin as adversarial and I don’t think that’s how you get to truth.

I want to create places where we can talk constructively and openly about our ways of getting there together. I want places where reporters can get closer to what a person is like, to create relationships, and I think our event series is a small part of that. We need more safe spaces for that dialogue, not fewer.

The entire world is on the record. We need more places that aren’t more than ever.

In truth, I have the opposite fear of ‘Off the Record’ session critics. I worry that because of fast-moving social and gossipy journalists, the OTR brand is mostly just marketing, a playful nod to the old that no one takes seriously.

A couple years ago, the P&P had an off the record session with a notable politician. He started the session by announcing that he was leaving his role and accepting a position with the federal government — but that it wouldn’t be announced for months, so it had to remain private. It was shocking.

…Then he said he was joking: “nothing is off the record anymore,” he said. It was a fun moment. The room roared with laughter. But then he went back to speaking in the same measured tone that he would if it was a traditional press conference.

No truly open dialogue was going to happen there that night. My fear is if we always assume we’re out to get each other, we’ll get farther from the truth, not closer to it.

One thought on “In defense of “Off the Record” and back room conversations”

  1. I could perhaps buy your argument in some circumstances. But inviting candidates involved in an important, hotly contested election? No defense for that.

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