By now, most politicos know about Obama aide Samantha Power’s little gaffe in which she called Hillary Clinton “a monster” who is “stooping to anything.” (Power, a Harvard professor who’s written for The New Yorker, delivered NU’s Leopold Lecture last year.)
An interesting debate about journalism ethics has erupted from this incident, because Power requested that her remarks be kept “off the record.” The problem: She requested it after making her provocative statements. This raises several issues for journalists.
— How, and when, can a source go off the record? Most ethics guides state that everything is on the record until a source and journalist agree to go off the record. The journalist can refuse, in which case the source has no choice but to go along with it. For this reason, a decision to go off the record must be agreed upon before statements are made off the record. If a source decides after saying something that he or she wants it off the record, the journalist has no obligation to heed the request. However, journalists will often heed the request anyway, depending on the importance of the information and whether they want the source to ever talk to them again.
— What does “off the record” even mean? It can actually denote several different things. Scenario 1: It means the information can be published but not attributed to the specific source. (This is the sort of “off the record” you saw in the New York Times’ article on McCain‘s ethics, or his sex life, or both, or something like that.) Scenario 2: It means the information cannot be published without corroboration from another source, who might or might not also want to speak “off the record.” To be more specific, many journalists avoid using the phrase “off the record” and instead use more specific terms: “not for attribution” (scenario 1) or “on background” (scenario 2). Obviously, there are all sorts of nuances and ethical implications that I have only glossed over… but I think it’s pretty interesting stuff.
Question for discussion: Should the journalist have printed Samantha Power’s words? And did Power deserve to be fired?