‘Times,’ Others to Congress: Stop ‘Off the Record’ Briefings

A group of news outlets led by the New York Times sent a memo today to over 600 press secretaries on Capitol Hill, urging them to stop the practice “off-the-record” briefings, particularly those given to large groups in public settings. “Unfortunately, the practice of granting ‘background’ or ‘off-the-record’ status to officials’ comments has gradually expanded […]

Last Updated: August 20, 2009 @ 10:14 AM

A group of news outlets led by the New York Times sent a memo today to over 600 press secretaries on Capitol Hill, urging them to stop the practice “off-the-record” briefings, particularly those given to large groups in public settings.

“Unfortunately, the practice of granting ‘background’ or ‘off-the-record’ status to officials’ comments has gradually expanded over the years to a point where many public officials see no problem with telling large audiences that their speeches are also off the record,” the memo reads.

The letter points to an official’s remarks after canceling a January 2009 speech at a Midwestern university when a student newspaper objected to her off-the-record terms. The official, according to the memo, said she has “spoken widely off-the-record” and the practice “has been respected."

The crux of the group’s argument: even if they play by the rules, bloggers and Tweeters in the crowd won’t, and they’ll ultimately get scooped.

“Despite this inequity, many reporters in such situations have honored the declarations that the remarks are off the record.”

One way to combat this, I would think, would be to simply not honor off-the-record requests in public forums.

The memo falls short of an ultimatum, though.

The problem is outlets like the Times need to maintain friendly relations with administration officials for their reporting in the long term.

Here’s the letter in full:

 

Letter to press secretaries: End "off the record" at public events

Memo to Press Secretaries of Congress and the Executive Branch

Re: Keeping public Speeches "on the record"

In the spirit of greater transparency for government activities, a goal that we in the media applaud, we would like to encourage you to address a common source of friction between reporters and the public officials they cover – off-the-record comments at public meetings.

This practice primarily involves Congressional and federal agency staff members, who frequently offer insight into policy deliberations at widely attended events such as conferences, but either refuse to allow reporters to use the information or insist that they not be named in news stories.

As reporters, we frequently allow administration officials and congressional staff aides to speak on "background" or "off the record" in our private conversations, but those agreements are made selectively in one-one-one situations in an effort to encourage officials to be more forthcoming. Presentations at public meetings by their nature do not involve classified information or other information that must be withheld from the public.

Unfortunately, the practice of granting "background" or "off-the-record" status to officials’ comments has gradually expanded over the years to a point where many public officials see no problem with telling large audiences that their speeches are also off the record. After canceling a speech in January 2009 at a Midwestern university when a student newspaper objected to her off-the-record terms, a government official said such a practice is common practice in Washington and she has "spoken widely off-the-record and it has been respected."

Another example – commonplace for many Washington reporters – occurred recently when two high-level Hill staffers told an audience of 300 people that they would be speaking off the record.

On a few occasions, Obama administration officials also have gone the off-the-record route at public meetings.

Unfortunately, many congressional offices, committees, and federal agencies follow this policy, prohibiting their staff members or officials from speaking on the record, even when their remarks are delivered to a large audience to which the press has been invited.

This practice disadvantages the press and the public in favor of special audiences who are not bound by the attribution rules. Sometimes these events are webcast, and many non-press professionals use their own e-mail news updates, blogs, and even "tweets" to pass along tips they hear about policy direction. They may not feel the same obligation to honor an off-the-record request as professional journalists.

Despite this inequity, many reporters in such situations have honored the declarations that the remarks are off the record.

To address this longstanding problem, we ask that government officials, including congressional staff members and federal agency representatives, start treating their comments at widely attended events as on the record.

Keeping public remarks by officials at all levels in the government on the record will greatly improve transparency and accountability for taxpayers.

Sincerely,

American Society of News Editors
Association of Alternative Newsweeklies
Bureau of National Affairs, Inc.
Daily Press Gallery of Congress Standing Committee of Correspondents
New York Times
Newspaper Association of America
Periodical Press Gallery of Congress Executive Committee
Radio-Television News Directors Association
Radio-Television Correspondents’ Association
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Society of Professional Journalists
Tax Analysts
U.S. News & World Report