Journalistic Ethics Question

here I find this passage:

My question is, is that okay? Non-journalistically speaking, it seems kind of skeezy to me. But what are the actual rules here?


I tell my reporters that it is fair game. If they deem it to be of sufficient news merit, run with it and quote what was overheard. On the other hand, if they feel that more can be gained by granting the individual’s request to ignore what was overheard, do so and use the conversation as a leverage point in future situations.

Which do you think is skeevy, the fact that the person said something in the presence of a journalist and then after the fact tried to make it off the record, or the fact that the journalist revealed something he had no obligation to keep confidential?

That’s not what happened. Someone who didn’t know there was a reporter present was overheard via an accidental pushing of the speaker-phone button. Then the reporter reported what he overheard. This is what feels wrong to me. It is clear the person would have said “this is off the record” or would have refrained from saying anything if he had known the reporter was there, and it doesn’t seem to me the person should reasonably have been expected to know the reporter was there and able to hear what he was saying. So I feel the reporter should not have reported the comment.

However, that’s my intuitive every-day ethics speaking, which is different than journalistic ethics. Hence my question.


What about this “off the record” stuff. Are journalists bound to keep it off the record, ethically, legally or otherwise? Or is it just upheld so that the journalist will be trusted in the future?

The latter.

“Off the record” is just a request…not a command the Journalist must follow. Of course if the journalist ever wants another off the record comment from that person (or others if they learn that the journalist violated the request) they are well advised to respect the request. Generally they respect the request unless whatever was said was just too spectacularly juicy to keep to themselves.

The journalist did nothing wrong. They happened to be in the right place at the right time to overhear a conversation. It is not their doing or fault that it was inadvertent. They have every right to report it if they like.

Imagine your wife (pretend you have one if you don’t) answered the phone and hit the speaker button by accident and you heard, “Hey baby, I can’t wait to get you naked tonight and screw you like your husband never does!” Your wife looks at you and tells you, “You didn’t hear that!” Since it was a mistake and the other person did not know you were listening should you not act on what you heard?

Or even better - if your friend is the one who overhears your wife (knowing it’s not you on the line because you’re in the john), should he report it to you? Think of the reporter as “the people’s friend” who is obligated to share what he/she knows.

The presumption is that everything is on the record. It’s not off the record until the journalist makes a promise to the source to keep something confidential. And that promise must be secured beforehand. You can’t retroactively demand confidentiality.

It is 100 percent fair game. If someone screws up in answering a call or says something he doesn’t want the public to know, or doesn’t know the reporter is there, that’s his problem. The journalist’s job is to report what he sees and hears.

You can’t just shout “off the record” and your comment is magically off the record. It’s something the journalist and source have to agree to, and generally it’s something that’s agreed to before they speak. It’s not something that is supposed to work retroactively- that just begs for abuse.

Silly example from this story: a New York Times reporter sees Tim Russert in his workout clothes, and an MSNBC rep tries to say Russert’s outfit is “off the record.” The reporter ignores this and prints both the clothes and the rep’s comment, because 1) he didn’t agree anything was off the record, 2) clothes are visible to everyone with eyeballs and can’t reasonably be called off the record, and 3) it was just stupid.

Further, I’d argue that “you didn’t hear that” isn’t the same thing as “off the record” anyway. In conversation I’d say it means something more like “I wish you hadn’t heard that” or “I didn’t want you to know that.” Doesn’t mean it can’t be reported.

It’s every bit as ethical as if the reporter heard something yelled from outside the window or down the hall during the interview.

Which is to say, totally.

And just how long were Smith and Moyle on the phone before the quoted passage occured. The story says “the two discussed what could be done about the tsunami of Democratic Party registrations.”

Unless the quote was the first words out of Moyle’s mouth, Smith could have told him “wait a second.”

What kind of fool puts any phone call on speaker with a journalist present? :rolleyes:

If she had to answer the call, she should have answered regularly, and asked the reporter to leave the room so she could have a private conversation.

But there’s no reasonable expectation that no one would be around to overhear such a shouted comment. There was (I think) a reasonable expectation that no one was overhearing the comment reported in the snipped in my OP.

This is a fair point, and for its force the point relies on precisely my intuition–that it makes a difference whether there was a reasonable expectation that someone might be listening. Smith indeed should have said “wait a second” before beginning the conversation, because not to do so gave Moyle the false impression that no reporter could be listening in.

I think my question is answered though–the canons of journalistic ethics say this is fair game. I can respect that. The purpose of journalistic ethics is very different from the purpose of my own general ethical intuitions and it would be wrong of me to confuse the two.

I think a debate is developing, in this thread, not about journalistic ethics but about, so to speak, “real” ethics. People seem to me to be disagreeing with me about whether the journalist did something “really” wrong as opposed ot “journalistically” wrong.


I’m not sure I understand your point. The wording of the story seems a little confusing, but from what I can tell Smith and Burk were talking to the reporter when Burk answered Moyle’s call. There was no reasonable expectation of confidentiality on Burk or Smith’s part. It would have been different if Burk had excused himself and gone into a locked room to talk to Moyle. If the reporter had broken into the room to eavesdrop, then there might have been some kind of ethical problem.

But repeating what was openly said in front of you? I can’t see how that would be unethical either for journalists or in “real life,” not that I necessarily subscribe to the notion that there are differing standards.

To expect privacy, you have to put yourself in a private situation. Answering the telephone in front of a bunch of people doesn’t create any expectation of privacy in “real life.”

There are no norms that apply to the marriage situation which require that I refrain from action if, for example, my wife said “I’m about to tell you something but you’re not allowed to act on it. I’m having an affair.” But there are such norms for journalists. My intuition has been that the reporter should have refrained from reporting it even though no one said “this is off the record,” precisely because it’s clear that if Smith had had reasonable knowledge of the actual situation, he would have either refrained from speaking or gone “off the record.” My intuition is that it is generally wrong (generally though I acknowledge not journalistically) to act against someone’s interests by taking advantage of their reasonable ignorance concerning the epistemological situation around them.

However, having said that, I’m starting to feel the other intuition. If the journalist hadn’t been there, but instead had come across a recording of the conversation, I’d think that’s fair game. And really, what significant difference is there between the “overheard” case that actually happened and the “recorded” case that could have happened? None that I can see yet.


ascenray nailed it. As a journalistic practice, “off the record,” or “background” comments are established as such beforehand, not retroactively. No one has a right to tell a journalist he didn’t just see or hear something that he never made a prior promise he wouldn’t report.

Also, this practice is about method, not law. It’s purely a matter of establishing trust, mutual courtesy and access. Betraying those trusts can lead to lack of access and repuatation, and it’s bad method, but it’s not illegal, or necessarily “unethical,” in a narrow journalistic sense.

In the case of the OP, there is no breech of trust because no agreement was made prior to what the journalist heard. As a rule of thumb, everything is on the record unless the reporter agrees beforehand that it isn’t.

More than just fair game. I think the journalist, if anything, is ethically bound to report it. Journalists have the public trust and this is newsworthy. The overheard statement was fairly gotten. To not report the story is more a breach of the public trust than reporting it is. I’d say the only reason for him to not report it is if, as mentioned earlier, keeping the info to himself would make those people “owe him one” and give him something even better and more useful down the road (thus serving the public even better).

I likewise do not see how personal or Journalistic ethics differ on this.

You may be right, I may be misreading what happened. Now that I look closer, I’m having trouble tracking pronouns.

What I thought happened was that the reporter was talking to Smith when Smith recieved a phone call from Moyle she accidentally put on speakerphone. Moyle, thinking he was talking to Smith privately, said something he wouldn’t have said had he known he was on speakerphone.

However, your reading may be right. Maybe Moyle called Burk, realized he was on speakerphone, and took that opportunity to say to Smith something he wouldn’t have said had he known it wasn’t just Smith and Burk in the room.

I understand that the journalist was acting correctly as a journalist.


How’s this hit people? If I overhear someone saying “Man I hate that Frylock character”*, where I know the person not only had no idea I was around but indeed had every reason to think I wasn’t around, I don’t think I should hold his comment against him.


*I mean this name to refer to me, not the cartoon character.