The Email Interview. Godsend or Menace?

This American Journalism Review story posted on the Poynter web site, raises a fascinating issue. It is reporters' increasing reliance on email -- rather than telephone or face-to-face -- interviews.

As someone who finds himself increasingly conducting email interviews, usually at the subject's request, there can be no doubt that they are convenient, time-saving and do provide a more accurate record of what was said than a verbal conversation. Obviously, as a method of providing backup documentation and information, they are extremely effective.

But given my druthers, I still prefer the old-fashioned chat, simply because emails do eliminate much of the spontaneous, human interaction that not only make for better stories, but allow the journalist to get a better sense of the subject's crediblity, motives, and demeanor.

For example, in recently working on a story about a young woman who'd been forced to resign from a newspaper, the first challenge was to assess the journalist's bona fides, truthfulness, and to some extent, her character. That first involved a lengthy phone call and then a two-hour face-to-face meeting. An email exchange would never have done the trick.

On another occasion recently, a story subject emailed an on-the-record response to some questions that was actually intended for his lawyer and reached me by accident. At his lawyer's behest, I gave him a mulligan and allowed him to resend me his answers. The second version was different than the first -- not dramatically, but noticeably. There's no escaping the fact that email interviews allow for prepared, prepped, and polished answers.

These days, college journalism students working on papers and projects are increasingly inclined to send an email with a number of questions seeking written responses. In those cases, I have a hard and fast rule. No email interviews, only by phone.

While I appreciate that emails are the new technology, these future journalists need to learn basic interviewing skills, not simply how to send emails. Instead of having to take notes, transcribe them, and then figure out how to use the information, these young email interviewers can simply cut and paste responses right into their work.

That's just making things too easy. And it's not good journalism.
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