The Ethics of Pressing the Record Button

By Erin McKinstry

One evening during a journalism conference, I was discussing interviewing etiquette with another reporter. I confessed that I’d forgotten to disclose that I was recording a phone conversation on occasion, but that working in radio had broken me of the habit. I was surprised when the journalist said he rarely tells sources he is recording phone calls. Why did they need to know? He only records to back up his notes.

He works in print and almost always interview sources who regularly deal with the press. I, on the other hand, tend to talk to people who aren’t used to media contact, so I was intrigued. The reporter said sometimes he records with his phone in plain view without asking. If he stopped to ask, he said, the source might clam up. But, if they asked him to, he would. He does it to cover his bases.

Obviously, there are legal questions around recording without permission if the reporter is dealing with a two-party consent state. But what intrigued me more were the ethical questions. In my training, I’d always been taught that asking permission to record was vital, lest the reporter appear deceitful or untrustworthy. The only grounds on which one could forgo permission were those set out by the Society of Professional Journalists for undercover reporting: the story must have a compelling public interest and be impossible to get any other way. And then, it always required a conversation with your editor.

But what happens when the power dynamic is shifted in the source’s favor, as often is the case in political reporting? Or when the person is a public figure? Is verbally asking permission required or is laying your recorder on the table, holding a microphone, or wearing press credentials enough?

Lynn Walsh works as a project manager for TrustingNews.org and currently sits on SPJ’s ethics board. In the past, she’s worked as a television reporter and has worked on some undercover assignments. “Undercover, there are times we don’t tell people. And we have those conversations from an ethical standpoint, serious conversations. Do we need to do this? Do we need to go in and conceal our identity?” Walsh said. “And how can you minimize the harm of those people that may be in that area?”

Otherwise, she said, you should always err on the side of transparency and tell sources you’re recording and what the purpose of the recording is before you start. But, Walsh said, particularly with public officials and those who work with the media often, you don’t always have to verbally ask permission. It can work just like note-taking. “If you are very visibly pulling your phone out and pressing a red button, pulling a tape recorder, it’s easy to see visibly that you’re doing it,” she said. “That’s enough.”

In what’s now been criticized as a political move, former WUTC reporter Jacqui Helbert was fired from her job in 2017 because she was accused by a Tennessee lawmaker of not identifying herself as a reporter and not disclosing that she was recording. Helbert followed a group of high school students to the capital to talk to members of the legislature about a transgender bathroom bill. She wore WUTC press credentials and headphones and carried a large microphone. When an inflammatory quote from a lawmaker appeared on the evening news, he complained to the station, and she was fired for an ethical violation.

Her firing has been widely criticized for a variety of reasons, but ethically was she in the wrong? Should she have identified herself? Walsh thinks she should have, particularly before using any of the audio in a radio broadcast.

“If you have a camera, if you have a big microphone, if you visibly are looking like you’re carrying recording equipment and you will be recording…you don’t have to necessarily tell people you’re recording, it’s understood. Those are kind of legal arguments,” she said. “But ethically, I think you still should tell them that you’re recording and show that you’re not trying to be sneaky.”

Former Denver Post reporter Fred Brown agrees that transparency is important, but thinks there are situations when a journalist needn’t disclose that they’re recording. “If you’re doing an investigative-type story and dealing with a source you know to be hostile or uncooperative, then it’s not a good idea to disclose that you’re recording,” he said. “But you must have [a] solid reason to believe that the interviewee is going to be evasive or dishonest.”

Another situation is in a public setting. “If a public figure is speaking to a group—even if it’s officially ‘closed to the press’ and you’ve somehow managed to get in—I’d say you’re on solid ground if you’re recording the speech,” he said. “The closed nature of the gathering makes it inherently an uncooperative or hostile source/setting.”

What happens when they clam up?

While working on a story about gun violence, I was interviewing two sources at once. Before starting the interview, I described what it was about, that it was for print, and I asked permission to record for note-taking purposes with my cell phone. Then, I set it in plain view on the table. In the middle of the interview, a third source that knew who I was and why I was there came into the interview late. He introduced himself briefly and the interview continued. The sources were in the middle of sharing a story, and I didn’t want to disrupt the flow. But then, one of the interviewees stopped, turned to the man who’d just entered the room and said, “Just so you know, she’s recording.” Suddenly, the atmosphere shifted.

I was embarrassed and felt like I hadn’t done my due diligence. And the sources were stiffer and more formal for a while after the interruption. But, at the time, I’d thought, it’s only for note-taking purposes. He can see me taking notes. Why is recording any different? If anything, it just ensures accuracy.

As a radio reporter, I now know even more intimately how a microphone can make a source clam up. I’ve talked with a source freely on the phone for 30 minutes to an hour only to have them give me short, clipped quotes once I start recording. Often, they’ll restart sentences and breathe a sigh of relief when the recording is finished. And I’m far from an intimidating person.

That’s one of the reasons veteran journalist and adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Paul Fletcher, stopped recording his interviews a long time ago.

“I agree that recording equipment can cause a source to become clinched and can make the interview less of a conversation,” he said. In addition, he said, he didn’t take as good of notes when he used a recorder. But Fletcher added, if he were still recording he would ask for permission; it’s important to always be up-front.

But what about the little stuff?

A common practice for radio reporters is to always have your recorder rolling. That way, you can catch sound of the doorbell ringing and the “Nice to meet you!” to help set up a scene. In a phone interview, you’ll get the phone ringing and the initial “hello” that you might use for part of the story later. 

I’ve always wondered: is that ethical? Is it okay to ask permission to use the audio after the fact? If the interview has been set up ahead of time and they know it’s for radio, does that make it’s okay?

Walsh said there are often workarounds. “You’ve had conversations before. You can ask ahead of time,” she said.

Both National Public Radio and the New York Times forbid recording without consent of the interviewee, except in very rare circumstances that warrant undercover reporting.

“In the case of recording, if you tell them that you’re using it to play it back to get everything correct, tell them. If it’s an interview for broadcast, tell them. If they disagree to talk on tape, but are happy to talk to you in other means, say that,” Andrew Seaman, SPJ Ethics Committee Chair, said. “Have it all arranged in advance. Again, honesty is the best policy—and it’s based on trust. The more upfront you are, the better.”

And when the reporter is recording someone’s refusal to talk to them? That person obviously didn’t give consent. Even when you try to draw a line in the sand, there are always grey areas.

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