The Russian edition of Forbes magazine published an interview that had been conducted less than 24 hours before exiled Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky’s mysterious death. Berezovsky was quoted as saying he had lost “the point of life.” Berezovsky’s comments had been made off the record, but Forbes decided to publish them. Is it ethical for journalists to publish off-the-record comments after a source’s death?
Depends on whom you ask. As the Explainer has previously explained, “off the record” is a nebulous concept that depends on the reporter, source, and situation. Typically, statements made off the record may not be quoted, and information disclosed off the record may not be published unless the journalist is able to find a second source willing to go on the record or on background with the same information. (“On background” means that the source agrees that the journalist may publish certain information as long as the journalist doesn’t identify the source.) The exact parameters of “off the record” are typically negotiated between a journalist and a source before an interview begins. But often those negotiations don’t include discussion of whether the source’s comments will remain off the record in perpetuity or until the source’s death, which means that a journalist must decide whether to publish off-the-record quotes posthumously on a case-by-case basis.
To decide whether to publish such comments, a journalist may weigh the source’s reason for wanting to keep the comments out of the public sphere, in addition to weighing whether disseminating those comments would contribute to the public good. In the case of Berezovsky, since his comments during the Forbes interview shed light on his mental state before his death, they arguably are in the public interest. In January 2011, Fortune magazine published off-the-record information about Steve Jobs’ cancer treatment after its source, Apple director Jerry York, died. Fortune’s reporter wrote “With York's death, the off-the-record agreement is no longer in place,” but other media professionals disagreed.
Sometimes journalists agree to keep entire conversations off the record for the sake of cultivating relationships with their sources. In Washington, D.C., it’s common for political figures to attend dinners with journalists with the understanding that any comments made over the course of the evening will remain off the record. Berezovsky’s final off-the-record conversation with Forbes took place at London’s Four Seasons restaurant.
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Explainer thanks Todd Gitlin of Columbia Journalism School.