Wednesday, March 22, 2006
I learned a lesson about going "off the record" years ago.
I was the lead editor on a series that used statistics about driving under the influence of alcohol arrests and dispositions to show that, contrary to their campaign promises, prosecutors were anything but tough when it came to DUI. We launched the investigation after local police gave us a series of arrest reports showing that a prominent member of the community had been arrested multiple times for DUI without being convicted.
Instead of honing in on one person, we looked at all DUI arrests throughout a three-year period and then tracked those cases. What we found were dozens of people with multiple DUI arrests who were never convicted of DUI. More often than not, the DUI charges were dismissed or reduced to lesser offenses that allowed the drivers to keep their licenses and drink and drive again. We interviewed one man with more than a dozen DUI arrests who still was driving legally.
It took us a year to gather and analyze our data, but when we finally sat down with the person responsible for DUI prosecution, we were ready. He talked about the difficulty of proving DUI cases. He talked about how repeat offenders learn to beat the system. And he talked about the need to efficiently manage the county's caseload.
About halfway through the interview, we brought up the arrest reports on the prominent member of the community. What, we asked, had happened in those cases?
"Can I go off the record?" the prosecutor asked.
Then came my big mistake. "Yes," I said.
The prosecutor proceeded to tell me that he let the person off the hook, time and again, because of "what he meant to the community." Bingo. Turns out the police were absolutely right. The lead DUI prosecutor had turned a man loose to drink and drive again and again because the man had wealth and status.
The problem was that the prosecutor's admission came "off the record." I couldn't use it, and I wasn't going to get such an admission again.
Knowing something my readers don't know is not satisfying. It's frustrating.
Reporters are supposed to gather information they can share with readers. Gathering information they can't share with readers usually is a waste of time. Further, getting information that the public should know but that you can't give them will keep you awake at night.
There are times when getting comments off the record can point a reporter in the right direction. And sometimes, off-the-record information can be verified through other sources.
But it's a risky game to play, and it's rare that readers benefit when reporters let sources go "off the record."
The bottom line? News happens on the record.
From the Editor appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today. Send questions to Scott Stanford at email@example.com or call him at 871-4221.