Inside the News: A Colorado Reporter Explains ‘Off the Record’ to a Source — And to Readers

  • Corey Hutchins is a journalism instructor at Colorado College and a contributor to Columbia Journalism Review, The Washington Post, and other news outlets. This column is produced with support from the Colorado Media Project, and is distributed statewide via the Colorado News Collaborative.

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This week, a city council member in Englewood who is at the center of controversy answered a phone call from a local reporter and responded to a series of questions.

Later, the elected officeholder called the reporter back to say she wished to keep portions of their conversation “off the record.”

That’s something that can happen during the news gathering process of journalism and it can be frustrating for both parties involved. There are murky areas in source negotiation, and navigating them sometimes involves finesse.

A reason a source of news coverage might want to retroactively make something off the record could be a realization they said something embarrassing, unguarded, untrue, or (more likely) something that won’t make them come off well; they’d like to take it back. Another might be they earnestly believed their conversation was “on background,” “off the record,” “not for attribution,” or otherwise not “on the record.”

Because those phrases can mean different things to different people — I’ve found two journalism textbooks that define “off the record” in opposite terms — it is important for journalists to make sure they are on the same page with their sources about the context in which they are speaking when someone wishes to talk in a way that is not on the record.

Simply asking “What does that mean to you?” can often clear up any misunderstanding before it becomes a problem.

But what should a journalist do if a source calls back to say they wish for an earlier conversation to be retroactively off the record — if there was never any negotiation about that in the first place? There’s probably not a hard-and-fast rule, and many factors could be at play in any particular situation. But a journalist should balance the public’s right to know against whatever other factors there might be, such as a reporter’s relationship with a source, any prior standing agreement about confidentiality, or anything else.

Typically, unless a source suggests a conversation (or any portion of it) is off the record or otherwise and the reporter agrees to it, a journalist can assume everything said is on the record, meaning attributable to the source by name in print with or without quotation marks. (This goes for interviews with story subjects who are used to speaking with the press; journalists should be more sensitive with story subjects who aren’t typically used to speaking with reporters.)

A situation involving source negotiation became its own news in Colorado this week when Englewood City Councilwoman Cheryl Wink tried to retroactively make off the record a phone conversation with Englewood Herald reporter Taylor Shaw.

The politician requested that the newspaper publish an emailed statement instead of anything from an earlier phone conversation. The reporter declined. The Herald also went further, explaining to readers in the story why the reporter did what she did. And, because the reporter had recorded both phone calls, the Herald posted audio of the phone conversations to the paper’s website for transparency. (Colorado is a “one party state,” which means as long as one party to a conversation consents to the conversation being recorded it’s OK to record it without the other party knowing — as long as both parties are in Colorado.)

Here is a relevant excerpt from the story:

Following the end of the phone call interview, Wink called the Englewood Herald shortly after to confirm the newspaper got the email with the statement. 

“That’s what I’d like you to put in the Herald. And I’m calling you to ascertain that no detail of what I said to you on the phone, you’re going to put in that paper,” Wink said. 

When the Englewood Herald explained there was never an agreement about being off-the-record during the previous conversation and that the Englewood Herald had called to interview Wink, she responded, “You’re joking right now.”

“You’re going to write down standard conversational stuff now that I’ve had with you on the phone, as my interview?” Wink asked. “You’ve got to be joking. I have to call my attorney.”

Wink said she told the Englewood Herald she would send responses to the questions asked via email. It was then explained that the email was an addition to the phone call conversation. 

“Nothing I said to you, that outside of that email, was an official interview response,” Wink said. “I’ve never interviewed anybody like that. I mean, I’m not an idiot.” 

The Englewood Herald offered to go through the questions again but said the original conversation was on-the-record and for things to be off-the-record, there has to be a discussion and agreement beforehand, which did not happen during the June 2 conversation. 

Wink did not respond and appeared to have hung up the phone. 

Later that same day, Wink sent an email to the Englewood Herald stating, “When we spoke today I was operating under the assumption that my comments to you on the phone were off record and as I said to you several times, that my formal interview response comments would be sent to you via email, as was followed through on after our conversation.

“I respectfully ask that you honor this agreement and only print on the paper, the information I shared with you via email.”

In an effort to maintain transparency with readers, Colorado Community Media is sharing the audio recordings of both phone call conversations between Shaw and Wink. 

From the audio, it is clear the reporter is wishing to speak to the council member in an interview capacity for the purposes of a news story. She says as much when she introduces herself.

While the council member at one point early on in the conversation says “I hope you’re not quoting all of this” and adds that she doesn’t “really have time for an interview,” she also freely offers her opinion and responds to the reporter’s questions. And she does so without trying to negotiate how the reporter will quote her or asking to clarify the context in which they are speaking.

Wink is facing a recall, meaning some voters in her community are trying to oust her from office through a signature-gathering process and a special election. The recall is largely about zoning density issues, but another reason those involved in the effort have given is that Wink missed multiple public meetings. When Shaw asked the council member about that, one of the things Wink told her in the initial phone call was that she believed the recall was “stupid” and “these little citizens were angry about everything.”

In a second phone call, once she realized the reporter planned to quote her, Wink, sounding somewhat exasperated, said she believed their prior conversation was “casual talk” and not a formal interview. “How old are you?” the councilwoman asked the 24-year-old reporter at one point.

The reporter then correctly explained to the elected officeholder how source negotiation works.

“I’d be happy to go through the questions again if you would like to, but the original conversation we had was on the record,” Shaw said. “If you want things to be off the record you have to discuss it with the reporter beforehand to agree that what is going to be said next will be off the record … we never had that conversation. I called to interview you.”

Linda Shapley, the publisher of Colorado Community Media, which runs The Herald, said the exchange between the reporter and the councilwoman “shows some incredible professionalism” from Shaw “but also should serve as a media literacy lesson to public officials.”

Kyle Clark, a prominent TV anchor for the nightly newscast “Next” on Denver’s 9NEWS, commended the way Shaw handled the situation, adding, “every time one journalist stands up to pressure from an elected official, it makes it harder for that to work again.”

The extent to which authority figures understand source negotiation with reporters isn’t unique to the municipal and local news level.

In 2017, then-White House spokesman Anthony Scaramucci set off a journalistic debate about “what was or is off the record versus on the record” and whether the nation’s top communications professional knew the difference. That situation played out in the political press when the Trump spokesman called a New Yorker reporter and unloaded about his colleagues without first negotiating how or if he would be quoted. He lost his job not long after.

Other media savvy figures from Steve Bannon to Elon Musk have tussled with journalists about the parameters of source-reporter correspondence.

If you ever wondered whether a source could sue a journalist for printing something that they said was off the record, read the compelling decades-old court case Cohen v. Cowles Media.

Grand Junction Sentinel says ‘despot’ county officials are going after its reporter

Here’s a new one. In a house editorial, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel newspaper this week stated the Mesa County attorney, Todd Starr, has “clearly” accused one of the Sentinel’s reporters, Charles Ashby, of criminal conduct.

From the Sentinel:

Starr provided a play-by-play analysis of security footage showing Ashby waiting in a hallway for a closed-door executive session to end on May 12. Ashby’s “crime?” Leaning against the wall in a hallway near a door that led to a room where the closed session was taking place. There’s no audio from the security footage to indicate whether there was anything to hear. Ashby maintains there was not.

Another excerpt:

Starr stated — as a conclusion — that a reporter (who was lawfully engaged in doing his job) committed a crime. He suggested that the reporter may be subject to prosecution if the health board so desired.

Beyond sticking up for the newspaper’s reporter, the editorial had a few choice words for the county attorney and a county commissioner.

“Whether the intent is merely intimidation or the actual arrest of a reporter, this is straight out of the despot’s playbook,” the editorial stated.

Read the whole thing at the link above.

Publisher of Colorado cluster of hedge-fund controlled newspapers retires

The publisher of one of the newspaper brands under the umbrella of the Alden Global Capital hedge fund is saying goodbye.

“Albert Manzi, president and CEO of Prairie Mountain Media, is retiring after 42 years in the newspaper industry,” The Daily Camera newspaper in Boulder announced this week.

Manzi had led Prairie Mountain Media, a group of Alden papers in Colorado that includes the Daily Camera, Longmont Times-Call, Loveland Reporter-Herald and Greeley Tribune. “The company also includes the Broomfield Enterprise, the Colorado Hometown Weekly, the Estes Park Trail-Gazette and a group of papers from eastern Colorado: Brush, Fort Morgan, Sterling, Akron, Lamar, Julesburg and Burlington.”

Here was an eyebrow-raising excerpt from the paper’s announcement:

Manzi said points of pride include the growth of Prairie Mountain Media in an environment of shrinking media companies, with the company more than doubling in size over the past 17 years. The company also partnered with The Denver Post as a sister paper to find synergies in circulation, advertising, editorial and production.

The number of papers the group acquired in those years might have grown, but the staff at them certainly did not. The last decade and a half has been brutal on the properties in terms of retrenchment.

Some of the larger towns PMM papers serve in those years have also seen local news startups move in to fill gaps, like Boulder Beat, Boulder Reporting Lab, The Longmont Leader, Broomfield Leader, and Colorado Switchblade in Estes Park.

Jill Stravolemos, currently the company’s VP of marketing and advertising, will take over as publisher.

More from the paper about Manzi:

He noted Prairie Mountain Media was one of the first newspaper groups to create a centralized page production hub, which has become an industry norm. Another highlight, he said, was the advertising department’s idea to produce a commemorative book on Boulder County’s 2013 floods. The book sold 15,000 copies, with part of the proceeds donated to the Community Foundation’s flood relief efforts.

The publisher did not escape some turbulence over the years, however, that didn’t make it into the paper’s writeup.

In 2018, for instance, Dave Krieger, who was the Boulder Daily Camera’s opinion page editor at the time, said Manzi fired him after Krieger published an editorial on a blog that he said the publisher blocked from appearing in the pages of the newspaper.

Find the paper’s send-off to him at the link above.

A media lawyer who represents Colorado news outlets is ‘proud to be woke’

Steve Zansberg, a prominent First Amendment attorney in Colorado who has long represented news organizations here, has taken up the mantel for this election season’s latest catchphrase.

“I call upon all of us who strive to make ours a liberal, progressive and socially evolving society — one in which all people, regardless of color, gender, orientation, race, religion or political beliefs are welcome and accepted — to identify ourselves proudly as woke,” he wrote in an opinion column this week for The Miami Herald.

Why the Herald in Florida?

The newspaper circulates in the backyard of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis who recently made his presidential campaign official. As a culture warrior candidate, DeSantis has vowed to “destroy leftism” if he becomes president, and has declared a war on the nebulous right-wing epithet “woke.”

Here’s an excerpt from Zansberg’s column:

And, if it is woke to believe that none of the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, whether under the First or the Second Amendment, are absolute, but instead are subject to reasonable governmental regulation — you can’t falsely shout “fire” in a crowded theater, and you can’t own a nuclear bomb, a surface-to-air missile or a military assault weapon — then, again, call me woke.

And another:

As a member of the woke majority, I do not believe that the sun orbits the Earth, that people “learn” to be gay or that they can be “de-programmed” from being their true selves, that whites are superior to people of color, that men are superior to women or that we can continue destroying our ecosystem without suffering the consequences.

There’s plenty more where that came from.

“Shout it from your rooftops,” Zansberg wrote as his column’s kicker. “Display it on your chest. Put it on a bumper sticker: ‘I’m Woke and Proud.’”

More Colorado media odds & ends

⛵️ This newsletter is in out-of-the-country mode, meaning content might be lighter than usual and I might not be as quick to respond to emails, voicemails, or DMs.

🆕 Pueblo’s Chicano newspaper, La Cucaracha, “is again rolling off the presses regularly after a 40-year hiatus,” Colorado Public Radio reported today. “La Cucaracha founder and current editor Juan Espinosa spoke with KRCC’s Shanna Lewis about the paper’s history and its new incarnation.”

🤖 The Denver Press Club is hosting a panel discussion about artificial intelligence June 13. Colorado Sun Founder and Editor Larry Ryckman and the AP’s Jim Clarke will participate along with venture capitalist Jonathan Garini and AI researcher Ben Radford.

🔏Robert Turner, a journalist who is currently incarceratedpublished a story via the Prison Journalism Project titled “How I Survive in The Most Dangerous Prison in Colorado.”

📚 “Through literature set in Colorado and beyond, a new project mapping 1,001 fiction books read by one novelist over five years aims to show that Americans aren’t as divided as we think,” wrote Alayna Alvarez in Axios Denver.

👀 Erik Maulbetsch of The Colorado Times Recorder wonders if The Denver Gazette’s endorsement of a candidate in the Denver mayor’s race backfired. And he got the CEO of Clarity Media Group to comment about a political group’s flyers, saying, “Referring to us as a ‘right-wing newspaper’ was meant to be a cheap shot and a pejorative, and while we certainly consider ourselves a common sense, free market editorial page – I’d argue that our news and journalism is the most balanced and objective in the state.”

🪧 A Colorado law “protecting patients from harassment outside of health clinics is being challenged by an anti-abortion protester … who’s saying it violates her free speech.”

🎵 Rocky Mountain Public Media, the parent company of Rocky Mountain PBS, KUVO JAZZ, and THE DROP, announced what it called a “groundbreaking collaboration with Colorado State University Pueblo, bringing one of the station’s most popular radio shows to Pueblo.” As of this month, listeners in Pueblo “can tune into live broadcasts of ‘The Kickback with Unique’ on REVOLUTION 89.5 from Monday to Friday, 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.”

🏞 TV news “largely failed to connect climate change” to a landmark deal to conserve water from the Colorado River Basin, wrote Alicia Sadowski for Media Matters for America.

➡️ Jonita Davis “has gone through hell and back to get her and her kids into a safer situation and to continue pursuing her journalism career in Colorado. She found an apartment and needs help with the deposit,” Moe Clark posted this week. Clark pointed to this effort to help if you can.

📺 Jayson Peters explained why he had to unfollow some local TV news accounts on social media, citing, among other things, “nakedly carrying water for the police state and corporate prison interests, and espousing political opinions decidedly not in furtherance of democracy.”

💨 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel sports writer Patti Arnold has retired. “Been a fun ride the past 38 years, but it’s time to see what it’s like not working nights and weekends,” Arnold said.

⚖️ Law360, the subscription-based outlet that covers legal news, isexpanding “to include newswires focused on breaking news and analysis on legal and regulatory issues across the states of Colorado, Connecticut and North Carolina.”

📵 “Signing into law a bill that lets elected officials block anyone from their private social media accounts for ‘any reason,’ Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Monday urged state lawmakers to monitor two cases related to the issue pending before the U.S. Supreme Court,” reported Jeff Roberts for the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. Roberts also published “Eight things to know about 2023 changes to the Colorado Open Records Act.”

➡️ The Osage Nation is soliciting proposals “to obtain an Individual and/or Firm to provide sustainable news development consulting services.” I’m told The Osage News is looking for someone with experience working with nonprofit newsrooms as it seeks to diversify its funding and “look for more grants and other sources of revenue, like subscriptions or donations.”

I’m Corey Hutchins, co-director of Colorado College’s Journalism Institute. For nearly a decade I’ve reported on the U.S. local media scene for Columbia Journalism Review, and I’ve been a journalist for longer at multiple news organizations. Colorado Media Project is underwriting this newsletter, and my “Inside the News” column appears at COLab, both of which I sometimes write about here. Follow me on Twitter, reply or subscribe to this weekly newsletter here, or e-mail me at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.