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Who Decides What’s Off the Record?

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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? EWA 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 demand.

Have you had similar experiences in your own reporting? Does the advent of social media make “off the record” an unrealistic scenario for any open forum? Please use the discussion box at the bottom of the page to share your insights and opinions, or to ask questions

When Is Off the Record Not an Option?

by Libby Nelson, Inside Higher Ed

I didn’t expect 2013 to be the year I began naming people who had declared their comments off the record. But in the past few weeks, that’s exactly what I’ve done. Twice.

In both cases, I was at a panel at the annual meeting of a higher education association. The panels were promoted as open to the media. Both times, congressional staff participating in the discussion began with an abrupt announcement: “If there are reporters present, my comments are off the record.” I looked around a hotel meeting room filled with audience members tweeting from their iPads, rolled my eyes incredulously and shook my head.

The announcements by congressional participants were a frustrating bait and switch. The first instance, at the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, was an irritation. The second, at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities a few days later, began to seem like the sign of a disturbing nascent trend.

In the weeks since, I’ve conducted an informal poll of fellow policy reporters. All said these restrictions at panel discussions are commonplace. Some said they run the staffers’ quotes by committee press offices afterward. Others find more creative workarounds: One environmental policy reporter said he sometimes interviews other audience members, those who aren’t members of the press and thus are exempt from the staffers’ “off the record” declaration, about the panel they both attended.

This shouldn’t be acceptable. Yes, off-the-record conversations are necessary and common in D.C. But anonymity is the result of an agreement (and a sacred one) in a private discussion between a reporter and a source, not a unilateral declaration to an audience of hundreds. Now that Twitter is the backchannel of choice at these discussions, participants’ words are likely to be broadcast widely by all audience members. And as Washington gears up to renew the Higher Education Act, accurate and informed reporting on congressional thinking is more necessary than ever.

The annual meeting of NAICU, the private nonprofit college association, includes a handful of sessions perennially closed to press; the rest are open and promoted to the media. Last year, an on-the-record congressional and Education Department panel was held a few days after President Obama declared his new focus on college affordability during the State of the Union. The ensuing discussion was lively and offered valuable insights, and I reported on it accordingly.

This year’s panel went from lively to heated. Private college presidents are fed up with Washington, and it showed. They pressed a panel of Education Department staff (who didn’t declare their comments off the record) and their congressional counterparts (who did), arguing that for-profit colleges weren’t regulated heavily enough and that the federal government is interfering too much on their campuses. When one Republican Congressional staffer argued against singling out for-profit colleges, saying there were bad apples in all sectors, several audience members shouted at him to name names.

In the subdued world of higher education policy discussions, this was high drama. The staffer’s argument wasn’t new — it’s more or less the Republican position on for-profit colleges — but it was a useful window into congressional thinking on higher education regulation. It all took place before an audience of hundreds. The conference had its own hashtag, #naicu13. In fact, due to last-minute changes to the panel lineup, one college president misattributed a Republican House staffer’s remarks to a Democratic Senate staffer in a tweet.

But only reporters were told to pretend they hadn’t heard the remarks at all. To their credit, the panel organizers didn’t go along with the staffers’ request, telling me that the “off the record” declaration was for the panelists and me to wrangle with. By naming the participants, as I did in two Inside Higher Ed stories, I don’t want to make congressional staff less likely to accept invitations to speak or associations more likely to close the discussions to the media. But should this trend continue, reporters present should call out unilateral “off the record”-ism as the ridiculous, unenforceable request that it is.

Why I Ignored a Request To Go on Background

by Eric Kelderman, Chronicle of Higher Education

The annual meeting of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation isn’t typically a controversial venue; staid would be a more apt description, I think. The council is an association of regionally and nationally accredited colleges and universities and their accreditors. The annual meeting typically focuses on the less-sexy topics of higher education, including the important but arcane government-sanctioned regulatory process that gives accreditors authority as gatekeepers of federal financial aid.

But the lack of controversial subject matter didn’t stop two Congressional staffers, one Democrat and one Republican, from announcing before several hundred audience members that their comments during the next hour or so about possible legislative action on higher education would be “on background” or “off the record.”  I and my peer at Inside Higher Ed, Libby Nelson, exchanged surprised looks and shook our heads in disagreement. Later, I informed CHEA’s communications officer that there was no way I could adhere to their request, and I wrote an article quoting both staff members.

In one sense, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Congressional staff regularly holds “background” briefings on Capitol Hill for reporters. In phone conversations with reporters, staff will almost always ask to be on background.

There can be good reasons for this request to be honored: Staff members don’t want to be put in the position of looking like they are speaking for the member of Congress for whom they work. In theory, at least, this works to protect the integrity of the legislative process and prevents a staff member from inadvertently antagonizing political opponents or, worse, allies.

While there might not be universal agreement on the terminology, the end result of honoring background or off-the-record agreements is that the information and comments from the staffer are given only to a reporter or a few reporters and cannot be passed on with attribution to any other audience.

So, it is simply not possible to be on background, let alone off the record, if you are conveying information to an audience of several hundred beyond the media who are there to report.

In addition, such a request has no bearing on the individuals who may not be part of a formal news outlet, but who are tweeting or blogging about the event as it happens.

There is a much bigger problem with making such requests to go on background in a crowded conference room. The culture on Capitol Hill has fostered the expectation that comments without attribution are a right for high-level public employees rather than a privilege that both the reporter and the source must agree upon.

In their book, The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write, that allowing that privilege to exist, unchecked, violates the key journalistic principal of transparency: “As citizens become more skeptical of both journalists and the political establishment, this is also a disservice to the public and brings journalism under greater suspicion.”