By Charles M. Kelly
Once you start talking to a reporter who has identified himself as a reporter, you’re on the record.

You have to say “off the record” first or anything you say can and will be considered on the record.

Journalists can’t allow people to pull things off the record retroactively.

Let me explain the need for this rule by telling you about one of my early failures as a journalist and a man. This is the first time I’ve ever told anyone about it.

It was the night of Associated Student Body elections—as meaningless a “political” contest as you’re likely to encounter. The editors sent out a small army of reporters of the Daily Forty-Niner to cover the night’s developments.

I went to the University Student Union and spoke to one of the poll workers. I asked him if there had been any incidents of rules being violated. I can barely recall what he looked like. He was white, I remember that.

He said black candidates had been tearing down signs for white candidates. Then he said the white candidates had been tearing down the signs for black candidates.

Then he scowled and said something like: “What I just told you about the white candidates is off the record. I’m in public relations and I know it isn’t ethical for you to use off the record, so you can’t repeat what I said about the white candidates.” His words came like a flood, as though he was to give me time to speak.

Just so we’re clear: when a source says “off the record” first, it means I am obligated to act as though the source never spoke at all. I am not allowed to use the off the record source’s information. If another source gives me the same information on the record, I’m allowed to use that information from that source.

In this case, the poll worker was really saying: you must tell people that black candidates are breaking the rules, but you must not say white candidates are also breaking the rules. In other words: he decreed that I had an ethical obligation to tell the entire university the lie that he wished he had told me. He was typical of the liars I would encounter in future years. I’ve met only a few, but they consistently follow a similar pattern of behavior.

This particular liar and I glared at one another for several seconds. This was my first semester on the school newspaper. I didn’t know what the rules for “off the record” were, having heard the term only once before—on an episode of “Lou Grant.” I was entirely on my own. I didn’t know what to do.

I knew he wasn’t trying to influence the outcome of the election—the paper would hit campus newsracks hours after the ballots were counted. There was no logical purpose to his actions.

I closed my notebook and walked away. I scratched out every word he said and told myself not to use any of it. At the time I thought I’d done a good thing—I had not allowed this guy to bully me into lying to my readers. (By the way, I never heard anyone else accuse either black or white student candidates of pulling down signs. Neither did any of the other Forty-Niner reporters.)

As the weeks and months passed, I realized I’d done a substandard job. I could have talked to my editors. I could have talked to the man who taught the journalism ethics class when I was at Cal State Long Beach. The late Dr. Benjamin Cunningham of Seal Beach would have told me what every professional journalist already knew: The source has to say “off the record” first or every syllable is on the record and fair game for quoting.

From there, I could have put together a story about a poll worker who counted on the ignorance of a fellow college kid to help him misrepresent the behavior of candidates for student government office—based on their race and to no rational purpose.

You might ask: What would be the point of exposing him? That’s a good question. Guys like that don’t change. They can’t and they wouldn’t if they could.

I still should have exposed him. I might have given fair warning to potential victims in his classes. If he went into a line of work where he could abuse people on the basis of race, my article would have started a trail of evidence for future victims to use to fight him.

I didn’t expose the poll worker. I failed as journalist. Call it a sin of omission if you like, but it remains a sin all the same.

However, I see no need to repeat it. So I’m telling you flat out what any reporter will tell you:

Once you start talking to a reporter who has identified himself as a reporter, you’re on the record.

You have to say “off the record” first or anything you say can and will be considered on the record.

If you tell me something and then say, “Oh, wait, that’s off the record,” I will immediately doubt your honesty and question your motives.

Don’t switch back and forth between on and off the record. I’ll get confused and use information I shouldn’t have. You’ll feel betrayed and I’ll feel like I’ve been set up to fail. We’ll both lose.

We humans have the right to speak and we have the right to remain silent. If you choose to exercise your right to speak, so may I. Clear?

My first Crime Log was published in the July 15, 2005 issue of the Sun Newspaper. I looked up that first log recently. I cringed. I like to think I’ve improved, if only a little, as both a reporter and a writer since I wrote the story “Smell of death in the air remains a mystery.” A resident reported smelling a dead body. Police never found a body–or anything else to explain the unpleasant smell.
By the way, I didn’t write that headline.
Weak as that story was—a weak Crime Log is good for the community, but bad for the crime reporter—the log was an important step in regaining a journalism career I thought gone when events sent me into the advertising business. (I’m not going back. I’ll throw myself into the jaws of a shark before I return to advertising.)
The log seemed funnier during the early years than it is now. I’ve never forgotten the dog that wouldn’t allow the dogsitter back into his own home or the women who fought over the shark. Good times.
I’ll also never forget the uglier crimes: robbery, rape, murder and child abuse.
I prefer the lighter side.
Trouble is, I can only write about what’s in the log and what I’ve learned about the local crime scene. If criminals are more petty and cruel than stupid and sloppy, that’s what I have to report.
A man once asked me to put his name in the Crime Log. He didn’t want to report the person who shot him with a BB gun, he just wanted his name in the Crime Log.
We only report crimes that have been reported to law enforcement. Are we clear?
Do you folks have any suggestions for making the log better?