Blog: The Educated Reporter

Who Decides What’s Off the Record?

To do their jobs, education reporters on the federal beat depend on access to congressional staffers. But what happens when those staffers want anonymity while discussing policy at a public forum? I asked two reporters – Libby Nelson of Inside Higher Ed and Eric Kelderman of The Chronicle of Higher Education – to explain why they’re pushing back against what they contend is an unreasonable expectation.

When you read Nelson’s and Kelderman’s pieces at EdMedia Commons, you’ll learn they were both attending public forums with hundreds of other people  – some of whom were tweeting the content. While those other people might not have been journalists, it’s impossible to deny that the information was being widely spread. And the non-journalists in the audience had no professional ethical dilemma to keep them from even considering abiding by the unusual request.

To change the demanded level of openness once a public meeting is underway seems an awful lot like inviting someone to a baseball game and then expecting them to play cricket. It’s fairly certain the game won’t go very well for anyone. A meeting that is publicized as open (and to which journalists have been expressly invited) can’t suddenly become private.

Off-the-record conversations are an essential element of a reporter’s toolbox, and it’s one that’s typically used only when there’s no other way to reasonably obtain critical information. It also requires a prior understanding between the reporter and the source as to what the rules will be. To demand that reporters guarantee anonymity to speakers at a public meeting isn’t a fair demand to make — whether playing baseball, cricket, or any other game. 



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