What did it mean when Donald Trump went “off the record”?

Should GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump release the tapes of his interview with the New York Times’ editorial board?

His opponents during Thursday night’s Republican debate called for the release of the audio of Trump’s statements to the New York Times in a January sitdown – saying his comments reveal his true intent on immigration.

But The Donald claims those comments were off the record and will remain so.

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So what does “off the record” mean? Presidential candidate Donald Trump says he won’t release tapes of such statements made to the editorial board of the New York Times. (Creative Commons)

But what does it mean in journalism to go off-the-record?

Off-the record means the information received by the reporter cannot be used by publication in any context or attributed ever to that source.  The information can be used only if verified through second or third sources. Again, it is never attributed to the original source.

A reporter and newspaper risk losing credibility if the off-the-record comments are used in a story and attributed. And believe me, Trump’s opponents are taking note even as they stir the pot.

The current controversy erupted when Times columnist Gail Collins, who attended the January meeting, tipped her hand in saying that Trump’s pledge to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants was “going to be the first bid in some future monster negotiation session.”

Buzzfeed.com then wrote a story, saying that the Trump tape had gained “near-mythological status” in the Times’ newsroom and reflected his true positions.

Trump at the debate said “I think being off the record is a very important thing. I think it is a very powerful thing.”

Donald J. Trump Super Tuesday Press Conference at Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida on March 1, 2016. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

Donald J. Trump recently speaking at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

He said it is not fair to release off-the-record conversations, prefacing the remark that his opponents – Sen. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio – have spoken many times to reporters off the record.

When it comes to reporters’ interviewing sources, there are four main methods regarding attribution: on-the-record, on background, deep background and off-the-record. These parameters are often set before an interview takes place and some interviews are a hybrid of all three.

The standard bearer for style and ethics in the industry is The Associated Press and has outlined the use of sources.

On-the-record, as it sounds, means that any comments made to the reporters can be attributed to the source without any caveat. It is, of course, incumbent upon the reporter to accurately report what the source said and reporters might “run quotes by” their subjects to make sure that in a fast-moving interview  they were not quoted incorrectly or out of context.

On background is usually used with a source who is an expert of the subject matter of the story, but does not want his or her name associated with it. This information is usually contextual and the attribution can be negotiated.

The AP, in its guidelines, says:

“Reporters should object vigorously when a source wants to brief a group of reporters on background and try to persuade the source to put the briefing on the record. These background briefings have become routine in many venues, especially with government officials.”

Deep background is where a source of the information cannot be used, even on condition of anonymity. It can be heads up from a lawyer of an indictment about to come down, of a police officer about a big arrest or source may be acting as a whistle-blower, telling the reporter of corruption or scandal.

The most famous incident of using this method was, of course, Deep Throat, the anonymous source who was instrumental in helping the Washington Post break the Watergate Scandal that ended up bringing down the Nixon administration.

As a reporter with 30 years’ experience, it is not unusual to use a blended form of sourcing during an interview – and indeed some of Trump’s comments, such as those on tariffs, were on the record.

This blended style allows for a more honest and open interview where the subject can speak his or her mind. A reporter can stop the interview and ask to go on the record if a subject comes up that I think needs to be so.

A reporter may return to the source and ask him or her to go on the record with certain portions of the interview, as well. More likely than not, the subject will go on the record at that point and before the interview goes off the record again.

 

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