Posted by: mobrienweiss | February 11, 2013

Wither the email interview? At some college papers, yes.

Conducting an interview with someone via email may not be the best idea. You won’t be able to pick up on a person’s body language like you could if you were doing an in-person interview. You won’t be able to discern a tone of voice like you could during a telephone interview. But email interviews can be very convenient and afford the interviewees with an explicit record of exactly what he or she said so there shouldn’t be any misquoting snafus.

However Poynter reports that some college newspapers are starting to enact bans on email interviews because of the perception that interviewees “are requesting email interviews in hopes of having more control over their message.”

The University of South Florida student newspaper, for example, announced the end to the practice, with editor Divya Kumar writing in The Oracle:

“We live in an era in which electronic communications sometimes surpass the frequency of our verbal communications on a given day … We’ve seen an increasing number of sources on campus requesting to conduct interviews via email, and in the interest of providing our readers with the most accurate version of the truth, The Oracle will no longer conduct interviews via email, with only extraordinary circumstances as exceptions to the rule.”

Why the decree? “We cannot provide the transparency and accountability we wish to if the information we provide you with is first vetted and filtered through layers of spokespeople, or answered by a source at the other end of a computer with time to type, delete and retype a response,” Kumar wrote in a letter from the editor. “… [A]s a newspaper, it is our job to provide readers with the truth, directly from the source — not from the strategically coordinated voices of public relations staff or prescreened email answers.”

The Oracle staffers join student journalists at Stanford and Princeton who have similar bans in place, Poynter reported.

What’s your take? Are email interviews inauthentic, particularly if there are suspicions that the responses have been finely tuned by public relations folks? Or are they the new normal for journalism?

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Responses

  1. I can understand that student newspapers placing bans on email interviews have chosen to do so because they know that a lot of the responses they receive through them aren’t genuine.

    However, I think realistically, banning email interviews will prove to be more of a problem than a solution to uncovering “the truth” for stories. Having worked for a school newspaper for almost two years now, as well as two other local newspapers, I have learned that in many cases, emailing someone for an article is the only way to either get a hold of them or to even get a response from them. I have dealt with one individual in particular who I know doesn’t like to meet with student reporters. Rather than wasting time and trying to schedule an interview with that person to no avail, I know that it is simply easier and less of a hassle to just email them my questions and be polite as I possibly can in order to get some quotes. From that experience and others, I personally think that banning email interviews could mean the difference between having a story and not.

    Also, from working for local newspapers, I have learned that reporters can’t always dictate the form of an interview. When working on deadline, if a reporter hasn’t been able to contact the person they need to speak with, he or she will likely try anything to get a hold of them, including Facebook, Twitter, and even texting.

    I appreciate student journalists who are trying to uphold the integrity of journalism, but I think banning email interviews is unrealistic in an industry that is rapidly changing and depends more and more on technology and digital media.

  2. I conduct most of my interviews through e-mail simply because it’s more convenient. We are all extremely busy people and just don’t have the time to run around trying to meet up with someone for an interview. In reality, because we live in such a fast paced world, you may only be able to meet up with someone for an interview for 10 minutes and that can significantly hurt the article because you may not receive all of the necessary information due to lack of time and focus.
    With interviews via e-mail, the interviewee can take his or her time formulating a response and doesn’t have to worry about being misquoted. It’s more convenient on both sides. We live in the age of new technology, use it.

  3. I’d hate to think that e-mail interviews were becoming the “new normal.” The best answers journalists get are often those that come as a result of in-the-moment follow-ups – pressing for greater detail, asking for examples, rephrasing a misunderstood question. Plus, when you do an e-mail interview, you have to figure out what to do with all of the exclamation points everyone insists on using. Which is annoying.

    But the issue here is about the degree to which an administrator with trepidations about answering questions can PR-wash their responses before replying. Seeking the truth and getting some positive spin routed through an on-campus counsel is to be expected from time to time, but e-mail certainly makes it easier for interviewees to give reporters the rosier, sanitized version of reality. My question would be this: can a reporter on deadline include in a story that an administrator or whomever side-stepped a question in an e-mail interview? (for example: So-and-so did not respond directly to accusations that blank, but instead provided a statement reading “we at the university….”) Or would readers ask why the author didn’t pursue a face-to-face talk or phone interview?

    There is always the risk that someone will just read from a prepared statement regardless of how you contact them (I’ve seen this with my own eyes. Literally watched someone read from a sheet of paper.), but at least if you can get in their office or on the phone you can open yourself up to the possibility of throwing in a “so-and-so declined to comment” – the ultimate retaliation against a tight-lipped public official. You have to earn sentences like that, though.

  4. I have never wrote for a newspaper and have not interviewed many people. However, when I do have to conduct interviews they are normally through email but those interviews are usually for papers not news articles. I honestly would prefer meeting with the person and conducting the interview. I think you can get something from a face to face interaction that is lost in email- everything that comes with non-verbal communication (body language, facial expressions, tones, and the candidness of the responses). I agree that email interviews are not giving your readers the truth. I was just interviewed this week for something face to face, and I can tell you right now my answers were very different if I were to have typed them out. Email interviews allow the interviewee to really think about what they are going to say and they may ask people to help them with the questions. Whereas you know in a face to face interview you are getting that real person. As far as a ban goes I think that is a bit extreme as people do live busy lives and if you need the story you have to do what you have to do. I don’t think an opportunity for a story should be missed out on just because you couldn’t interview them.

  5. Usually, I always prefer face-to-face interviews or phone interviews for the mere fact that it is less work. Well, it’s more work when you think about the hassle of a back-and-forth exchange to a find a time when you both are available and then the driving to the interview and listening to the recording. However, nothing is as infuriating as conducting an e-mail interview and getting short, bullshit answers that evade the question. Or when the subject of the interview just completely skips over and neglects some of the questions all together, or you get incomplete and nonsensical answers that basically just talk in circles about nothing.

    Also, in-person e-mails usually puts the person at ease and are more likely to respond reasonably to your questions. When interviewing someone about something controversial, you can sometimes get them to open up about a topic that they wouldnt have via e-mail. In-person interviews are also great because you can get much better quotes from them.

    While I personally prefer in-person interviews, banning e-mail interviews is overall going to be detrimental to the paper. Sometimes there’s just no way to meet in person or on the phone. Sometimes the subject of the story insists on it. And sometimes all you need is a few quick quotes, numbers, or facts checked. I think banning e-mail interviews is exessive because journalists with integrity would only use those e-mail interviews in a last chance scenario.

  6. I am the Editor-in-Chief of my school’s newspaper and however much I would like to ‘ban’ email interviews, there is no way I could inforce this on the staff. In a perfect world face-to-face interviews would be the best way to get a full story, but in a college setting however much we can try to work to a professional standard, some students just literally don’t have the time. I go to a small school, Manhattanville College and lots of students are involved in various leadership roles on campus, I am lucky to have the staff I have and the paper we produce is to a high standard, even with email interviews now and again. I recently blogged a sample email for the staff to write when they are requesting interviews, here is the link:
    http://mymvilletouchstone.wordpress.com/2013/03/02/sample-email/


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