Sneak Peek: Up for Discussion- Email Interviews

One of the key features in the Dynamics of News Reporting & Writing is a breakout that we’re calling “Up for Discussion” (a working title…). The idea is to introduce a facet of journalism that can have multiple angles to it in hopes of sparking discussion.

Here’s a sneak peek at the one from the chapter on interviewing on the pros and cons of email interviewing (the arguments here are obviously not exhaustive, thus the point of the “discussion” on the topic):

The acceptability of email interviews varies from situation to situation and from organization to organization. Some journalists see it as an easy way to gain quick access to a source while others view it as a cop out that provides less valuable information when compared to a traditional interview. Here are some of the positives and negatives associated with this approach:

  • You get quick access for simple answers: The people you want to reach might be busy at work or trapped in a meeting, but thanks to mobile devices and a quick click of the “reply” button, they can give you what you need right away. If you need a simple answer such as “PAP stands for Pittsville Action Party, right?” or “How old did you say your son was?” a quick email response will do the job quite efficiently.
  • They produce readymade interview transcripts: One of the common refrains from people who don’t like something written about them is, “I never said that.” The best part about email is the ability to capture the EXACT words your source chose to use and put them into your story verbatim. If a source doesn’t like how people reacted to the story and tries the “I never said that” defense, you can publish the email and show you are right. It’s like a security blanket for your reporting.
  • Sources tend to like it: Rather than spending 20 minutes on a phone or look for a block of time in their schedule, the source can time-shift the interview to the first open moment he or she has and respond quickly at that point. Sources also feel more in control, as they can compose themselves before answering questions and get a stronger sense of how exactly to communicate their feelings in a coherent fashion. Email is ubiquitous so most sources understand how to use the tool and feel comfortable using it to interact with people.
  • You end up with weaker reporting opportunities: Email interviews don’t allow you the opportunity to follow up on crucial issues right away. With an in-person interview, when a source introduces a topic or offers an opinion, a good reporter can jump in right away and ask for clarification or push back on a misperception. An email interview doesn’t allow for that. It also doesn’t allow you to see how a source will react to a question. If you ask your chancellor, “Is there any truth to the rumor that you are taking a job as chancellor of Southeastern Central College?” his reaction might be worth more than the quote he provides. If he turns red, quickly throws a file from his desk into a drawer and says, “No, why? Where did you hear that?” you know you have something. If you asked that question via email, the chancellor can curse up a blue streak in his office and scream, “WHO TOLD THAT REPORTER ABOUT MY JOB INTERVIEW?” Then, he can calmly sit down at the computer and write, “I have no immediate intention to change jobs, as I love it here at Northwestern Central University.You don’t bond with your sources: The best way to get to know someone is to spend time with that person. Face-to-face interviews and frequent phone calls that include a little small talk can go a long way to create bonds between you and your sources. This can be incredibly valuable when you have big stories or you need an inside tip. If the only thing your sources know about you is your email address, you will never develop those kinds of connections that can lead to exclusive stories.

Before you do an email interview, check with your editor to see what rules exist about them. Also, consider the type of information you need and the type of story you are writing as you determine the viability of an email interview. If email is the right tool for the job and your company allows it, give it a shot. If not, don’t be lazy or scared and set up a more traditional interview with your source.

Thoughts on the topic, the approach and the usefulness of this feature in the book are always appreciated.


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