In my workshops on media advocacy, I often make the point that when you’re in the company of journalists, don’t say anything you don’t want to see in print or on air.
This may seem a little harsh. After all, if you want to give journalists good background information — to help them better understand a complex issue rather than to give them a story they can print, sometimes you may need to say things off the record.
This may be the ideal, and in some places the idea of ‘off the record’ may be respected, but in my experience there are just too many journalists who do not in fact understand or respect this unwritten rule. This is why I believe it is just safer to try never to say or do anything in the presence of a journalist, that you wouldn’t want publicised.
This was emphasised again to me the other day. One of the organisations I work with had arranged to show a documentary to a group of journalists at a training course. The showing of the film was followed by some discussion. During the discussion a comment was made, by-the-way, in answer to a question. The answer was intended as a ‘for instance’, to illustrate the point being made.
Imagine our surprise when, three days later, an article appeared in a newspaper saying that my colleague had ‘condemned the opposition’ in a particular country. This was completely inaccurate and out of context, and potentially damaging to the organisation’s advocacy efforts in that country.
There was no point in trying to do anything about it. The damage was done. Any letter or complaint would just prolong the problem. We had to keep quiet and hope the report would soon be forgotten.
But it was a valuable reminder — never be off guard when there are journalists around!
Of course, in these days of Facebook and citizen journalism, that just might be a rule for life in general.