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Ground rules are best set first


by Candace Bowen
“But of course that is off the record,” he said after my students had been interviewing him for at least 45 minutes.

In unison, 10 heads swiveled in my direction at the end of the row.

“What?” I stammered. “But … but …” And my mind screamed, “That’s not fair!” At the same time, I knew at least part of this dilemma was my own fault and one I should have helped my students avoid.

Third in a series

The post on interviewing ground rules is the third in a series of blogs that will run each Wednesday. Topics discussed, in order, will include FOIA, news literacy, journalism education, positive relationships with administrators, prior review, Making a Difference and private school journalism. We hope you will enjoy them. If you have other topics you feel we should address, please let us know


The 10 Kent State University journalism and communication studies majors were with me for the “Modern Media and Democracy” study abroad program last summer in Prague.  Each was doing research or multimedia about some aspect of that topic such as trust of media in the two countries or news coverage of minorities or media advocacy campaigns.

Their visit that day was to the U.S. Embassy for the Czech Republic, and, in the absence of the ambassador, their host was the Counselor for Public Affairs. That makes him a lawyer and a P.R. guy for the government, so that should have been my first clue to trouble.

But he had been chatting with the students, politely answering their questions, offering additional insight into the way media run in the Czech Republic. He even invited a local journalist to join us, one who has his master’s from the University of Missouri and writes for the embassy now. He, too, was just getting to some good insights into local media coverage, when WHAM! One of them asked something about what the students were doing in Prague, the students excitedly explained their website … and that was the end of the conversation.

Both men then explained anything and everything they said to us had to be vetted by the State Department in Washington, D.C., which could take more than a month. That was not happening with the students’ deadline in less than two weeks.

So what did I do wrong and what could I do at that point to make things better?

This is a situation student journalists – whether for high school or college media – face regularly if they are asking the tough questions and seeking sources beyond the first five clueless kids in the hall. Any good adviser should have a conversation with them about this up front, before they confront a difficult source.  What does “off the record” mean? What happens if a source says that?

In our case, a Google search before our visit would have helped. The first hit for “off the record U.S. State Department” yields “Ground Rules for Interviewing State Department Officials.” The first paragraph reads:

Ground Rules. Ground rules must be agreed upon at the beginning of a conversation or an interview with State Department officials. The discussion should proceed only after you and the officials are clear on exactly how the information can be used or attributed.

My first conversation with my students should have been to make sure their interviewees knew their purpose and agreed to talk to them ON the record. It would have been a pretty short meeting, I’m sure.

Although not every source is quite as strict about this as ours was, I should have shared with my students something like the recommendation of  writer and educator Robert Greenman in his Guidelines for Interviewing on the site. One of his first points is, “Discourage off-the-record information. There is usually more than one person to go to to find out what you want to know. You might tactfully indicate that to someone who is reluctant to talk to you.”

The Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Committee takes it further and points out that sources who don’t want their names attached to information may have less than noble ulterior motives for sharing their info, another good ethical discussion for student journalists about anonymous sources.

It might be worth sharing AP News Values & Principles from that organization’s website, which also emphasizes the need to discuss up front with the news source if you will even listen to information he or she considers off the record.

But I hadn’t had that conversation with my students. They were on a one-topic exploration, not part of true student media, but the same ground rules apply.  What I wanted to say to the Counsel for Public Affairs was, “You should have said that all this was off the record 45 minutes ago. You can’t take it back now!”  But some little voice in the back of my mind wondered, “If we make him mad, could he take away our passports?!”

I knew that was unlikely but didn’t want to chance it. “So what news media friends do you have who DON’T work for the U.S. Embassy?” I asked the Czech journalist. “And what is their contact info?”  And I handed him my business card. That night, he sent me a list to share with several good contacts on it.

As the wise Bob Greenman said,  “There is usually more than one person to go to to find out what you want to know” Given this situation a savvy adviser helps the student reporter find another source, one who’s willing to be quoted on the record.

To see the articles the students did write — none of them containing anything from that day’s interviewing —  check their Kent In Prague website.

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