Ken Metzler, longtime journalism educator and author of the book “Creative Interviewing,” was quoted in a 1993 magazine article saying he was hesitant to consider interviews by e-mail “interviews” at all.
Three years later, a new edition of “Creative Interviewing” contained a chapter devoted exclusively to electronic aids to interviewing — including the e-mail interview.
“I’ve changed my mind,” Metzler said. “There are many, many problems, but e-mail is a good tool. Its advantages outweigh its disadvantages.”
Metzler, emeritus professor at the University of Oregon, is among what appears to be an increasing number of journalists who see e-mail as the latest in a generation of reporting tools that can supplement — or sometimes supplant — the gold standard of traditional journalism practices: the face-to-face interview.
“It’s an acceptable option,” said Gannett News Service Editor Caesar Andrews. “It has its benefits.”
The actual number of journalists who use e-mail to conduct interviews is impossible to determine, but experts suggest the numbers have been on the rise. The Seventh Annual Middleberg/Ross Survey of Media in the Wired World, conducted in 2000, found that journalists’ use of the Internet was increasing in every category studied, including the use of e-mail for interviewing sources. A survey of reporters from throughout the country conducted a year later by the University of Miami School of Communication’s Bruce Garrison, an expert on computer-assisted reporting, found that 6.5 percent of interviews were conducted using e-mail, and 90 percent of the journalists surveyed considered the interviews “successful” or “very successful.”
It seems accurate to assume, Garrison wrote in a recent e-mail, that journalists’ use of e-mail for interviews has been increasing since then and that its use for a multiplicity of newsgathering purposes will continue to grow.
Journalists and educators agree that reliance on e-mail interviews likely will increase as today’s college students — for whom computer-mediated communication is commonplace — enter the nation’s newsrooms, government office buildings and corporate board rooms.
But despite the increased usage, practitioners agree that conducting interviews by e-mail raises serious issues that, if left unchecked, could fundamentally erode the credibility of today’s news organizations.
“It’s not that technology in and of itself is bad,” said veteran journalist Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University and author of “Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age.”
“Technology is a tool,” Bugeja said. “We just have to be able to know when to use it and when not to.”
When to hit the “send” button
Metzler’s epiphany, as it were, came in 1994 when journalists from various news organizations were doing e-mail interviews with scientists conducting research at the Antarctic. Metzler, then in the process of updating his book, was doing research on people who had been interviewed by journalists. He e-mailed one of the scientists, Hien Nguyen, to ask what he thought about being interviewed via e-mail versus telephone.
Nguyen, originally from Vietnam, responded in part: “I have always been amazed by the prompt and accurate response from American people across all ages on TV. Every American seems to be born with some capacity of natural or public speaking. I’ve been trying to learn to be like that. … English is not my mother tongue. E-mail interviews give me ample chance to answer with correct English grammar in my own pace.”
His response, and a delightful anecdote he provided in answer to a follow-up e-mail, convinced Metzler that “while nothing on the whole beats a telephone interview or a face-to-face interview, you strike it lucky sometimes, and e-mail can be extremely valuable.”
Clearly, e-mail is a suitable tool for interviews with people who, for reasons of geography or time-zone differences, cannot conveniently or cost-effectively be visited in person or reached by telephone.
Gannett’s Andrews uses the example of a reporter who relies on e-mail for communicating with military people overseas. Emily Yoffe, a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, interviewed a researcher in Australia via e-mail for a New York Times story on why young children watch the same movie repeatedly. And Sandeep Junnarkar, now a visiting professor at the School of Journalism at Indiana University, did e-mail interviews with people “who felt nervous about giving me their phone number” for stories on hacking into online banking systems.
Some journalists use e-mail as a last resort with sources whose schedules prevent them from telephone or face-to-face interviews.
In addition to overcoming logistical barriers, e-mail interviews can help a writer keep stories targeted. For a story in O, The Oprah Magazine, for example, Yoffe interviewed three women via e-mail over the course of three months, tracking their attempts to lose weight.
“Calling all of them regularly, finding the right time with those on the West Coast … arranging it would have been a dreary production,” she said, “and with e-mail I could target what I needed. There wasn’t the rambling and digressions. On the phone, I like that, but with this I wanted to keep things really focused.”
Yoffe met the women in person before the start of the e-mail exchanges, which exemplifies a practice that many journalists employ: combining the best aspects of e-mail journalism with face-to-face or telephone interviews.
When Washington, D.C.-based journalist and freelance writer Doug Daniel did a profile on a 90-year-old Scoutmaster, he e-mailed questions designed to elicit anecdotes and quotes to a list of 300 men who received their Eagle Scout awards during the Scoutmaster’s tenure.
“I tried to get people from the different coasts, different parts of the country, different ages,” Daniel said. “It was like having a phone book of the community and sending them all one e-mail.”
Some of those interviews were done entirely with e-mail, and some were done on the telephone. But then, Daniel hastens to add, he drove 400 miles to interview the Scoutmaster face to face.
In another case, he e-mailed four open-ended questions designed to determine how people in Scouting utilize the Internet, and he received 70 responses from people through the country. With 70 responses, Daniel saw patterns emerge that would not have been apparent given the logistical difficulty of conducting 70 telephone interviews.
“It reminded me of going to an organization’s meeting and being able to get a whole lot of people,” Daniel said. “Online is a community. It’s like going to a community meeting, if you can locate the right community.”
Locating the right community has become something of an art at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., where Ken Sands, managing editor of online and new media, has spearheaded development of a database of people willing to comment via e-mail for publication. Since 1997, 6,500 people, all of whom had previously written Letters to the Editor, have been added to the database. News staffers query a portion of people in the database and utilize the e-mailed responses in their stories or they telephone sources for follow-up interviews.
As a result of the Spokesman-Review project, the Associated Press Managing Editors’ Reader-Interactive Program was initiated, and after three years under Sands’ direction, similar e-mail databases have been developed at about 60 newspapers throughout the country.
In addition to utilizing the e-mail database, Sands said, beat reporters conduct e-mail interviews with their sources more often than in the past, a trend that may be particularly evident with sources in the business and technology communities who may be less accessible via telephone than traditional government sources.
While e-mail interviews lack spontaneity, “there’s another way of looking at it,” Sands said. “If you give them the opportunity to craft a response, you will get what they want to say. From their point of view, it’s better and more accurate.”
And the argument that face-to-face interviews yield more honest and straightforward answers than e-mail interviews do implies that taking people by surprise is desirable, “but I’m not all that interested in ‘gotcha journalism,’ “ Sands said.
E-mail journalism and due diligence
While Iowa State University’s Bugeja agrees that e-mail interviewing may be useful for some stories in which the topic is vastly more important than the source — a roundup story on hiring practices, for example — he and others say today’s reliance on technology in a corporate world is a dangerous development that is eroding the very underpinnings of basic journalism. As media conglomerates seek to maximize profits by cutting costs and downsizing staffs, they say e-mail interviewing allows reporters to do more stories in less time without leaving the newsroom.
But desk-bound reporters can’t bump into the story they didn’t know was there, Bugeja said, citing an instance in 1976 when, on a routine trip to the health building as a UPI reporter in Pierre, S.D., he uncovered the story that would be the biggest of his career: the swine flu inoculation caused the paralyzing Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
Every new technological advancement has removed reporters farther from the sources they cover, Bugeja says, beginning when the telegraph made it unnecessary for Associated Press reporters to row out to ships in the New York harbor to learn the latest news from Europe. The telephone removed reporters further, and computer technology — including e-mail — has removed them farthest of all.
“But community matters,” Bugeja said. “Reporting matters. … News is not about business, it’s about safeguarding rights in a republic. Are we upholding the spirit of the community? The First Amendment? The Internet used in tandem with face-to-face reporting is paramount in our time. But are we adequately portraying to employees when we should and should not use technology? About how to use the Internet and e-mail effectively in concert with the legwork standards of yore?”
Bugeja and others warn that the problems associated with reliance on e-mail interviews will be exacerbated as today’s college journalists become tomorrow’s news reporters.
Kathy Lawrence, president of the nationwide College Media Advisers and director of student media at the University of Texas-Austin, sees both student reporters and student advertising sales representatives using e-mail on the job with greater frequency.
If anything, Lawrence and others caution, still younger students whose world outside of school is Instant Messaging will be even more prone to e-mail interviewing than their college counterparts are now.
“My guess would be that the younger people in the newsroom probably are doing it and will continue to do it unless editors give them some policy guidelines about when such things are acceptable,” Lawrence said. “We’re undergoing a cultural revolution. We need to use it for the good it offers us and not let it undermine the real value of good journalism.”
But anecdotal evidence suggests that few news organizations have established policies on appropriate use of e-mail for interviews. Rather, some journalists suggest, appropriate e-mail practices can and should be part of ongoing newsroom conversations.
“That makes sense because technology changes and situations change,” Daniel said. “But when a news organization gets burned because of an e-mail interview, we will start seeing more hard-and-fast rules about how they should be conducted.”
Indeed, news organizations already have been victimized by e-mail hoaxes, including a bizarre case, reported by The Associated Press in 2003, in which a man in New Hampshire claimed in an e-mail interview with a staff writer for Computerworld that he was a Pakistan-based cyber-terrorist. The resulting news story was removed from the magazine’s Web site about three hours after it was posted, and the following day its author wrote a compelling first-person account of having “been had.”
The Spokesman-Review’s Sands points out that people tricked news organizations long before the advent of the Web. And the concern that e-mail responses may be written by someone other than the intended source looms large among journalists.
“It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to envision fraudulent uses of e-mail,” said Gannett’s Andrews. “Any reporter who makes use of e-mail should take steps to diminish the chance that something fraudulent or bogus is going on. It takes a higher level of skepticism and a considerable dose of common sense.”
Paul Bargren, a former journalist and now media attorney with the Milwaukee office of Foley & Lardner LLP, agrees that reporters could be at fault for failing to verify the authenticity of the information.
“You talked to the wrong person,” Bargren said. “In some sense, you were negligent. In the journalistic sense, the reporter would have to take a large portion of the blame.”
Gwen Florio, state reporter at the Rocky Mountain News, says she worries more about people misrepresenting themselves via e-mail than she worries that e-mail interviews can give sources an unfair advantage. She also cautions reporters about a related digital danger: taking information from online message boards without having voice conversations with the people who posted it.
“That,” Florio said, “is a huge no-no.”
Some journalists warn that e-mail interviews will, by the very nature of the technology, result in incomplete information and answers lacking depth and breadth. E-mail allows the respondent to develop coherent thoughts, but at least until voice recognition software is perfected, it also requires an expenditure of time to type the answers. And when e-mail responses all read, as journalist Yoffe says, “like everybody was trying to be E.E. Cummings or something,” journalists are confronted with the additional dilemma of whether to fix spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes that are now part of possibly permanent written record made by people who had sufficient time to respond.
Some journalists decline to use e-mail for interviews to avoid the possibility that responses they receive will be rehearsed and lacking in spontaneity, or varnished and vetted by the public relations department or the staff attorneys. E-mail gives people in adversarial situations the time to construct answers that may be technically accurate — but not completely truthful — or people can simply circumvent the question by giving answers that are nonresponsive, the Raleigh News & Observer’s Pat Stith wrote in an e-mail follow-up to a telephone conversation. And e-mail interviews obviously eliminate the possibility of real-time follow-up questions.
But Stith, who is a Pulitzer Prize winner, sometimes diffuses sources who challenge his questions by presenting documentation that he brings to face-to-face interviews. He warns that “tricksterism” can be even subtler:
“Lots of people we are interviewing are smarter than we are, and they know their subject very, very well. In many cases, we are at a serious disadvantage. We overcome the disadvantage in two ways. We overcome it in preparation. And we overcome by having been in this type of interview maybe 500 times. With e-mail, you pretty much throw all of that away.”
Also gone is the very reason many journalists entered the profession in the first place: to gain a passport to see the world, to be inside of people’s offices, to smell what’s cooking in their homes, to learn what’s in their heads and hearts by listening to their stories and looking them in the eye.
“Getting out in the world informs you,” said Michael Sokolove, contributing writer for The New York Times magazine. “You’re supposed to be a witness, the journalist. The antithesis of that seems to be sitting somewhere e-mailing. You can witness in all kinds of ways, but I don’t see how you can be a witness e-mailing people.”
Use of e-mail interviewing may further limit coverage of people whose socioeconomic or educational status prevents access to computers, e-mail and the Internet.
The University of Indiana’s Junnarkar saw a huge digital divide when he was working on a story about the stigmatization of AIDS victims in India. Although he could e-mail AIDS activists, finding the people at the heart of the story — the sex workers, the laborers, the truck drivers — required going to India and talking with them.
The Spokesman-Reviews’ Sands says finding people for an enterprise story on who will be affected by a government action is easy if the reporter sends e-mail queries to 300 people.
“But that’s not your only reporting source because there’s a whole group of people who don’t have access to e-mail, and they often are the people who use government services the most,” Sands said. “It’s not an either-or situation.”
In fact, Sands said, reaching some people by e-mail quickly frees reporters to be out on the streets looking for other people to talk to, other places to go.
Facilitating the interview process
While journalists continue to debate the relative strengths and weaknesses of conducting interviews by e-mail, they do agree that e-mail can facilitate the interview process in myriad other ways.
Several journalists said an e-mailed request for an interview sent directly to the source stands a better chance of getting a positive response than either a voicemail message or telephone call to an administrative aide.
Many journalists say e-mail is an efficient way of handling the logistics of determining time and place after the source agrees to an interview either by telephone or in-person.
For example, Tanya Barrientos, a feature writer and columnist at The Philadelphia Inquirer, remembers a flurry of e-mail exchanges with the public relations liaison for Jeopardy! in order to schedule a 5-minute telephone interview with then celebrity-champion Ken Jennings.
Journalists who decline to conduct full interviews by e-mail often use it to ask routine or perfunctory questions, clarifying questions or questions about incontrovertible facts.
Journalists also value e-mail for the opportunity to send follow-up questions to people they have interviewed in person. Barrientos says follow-up e-mail conversations are useful with thorny or sensitive subjects, such as asking about an acrimonious divorce.
“I think people talk more on e-mail,” she said. “People reveal themselves more through the computer because of that sense of anonymity.”
Other journalists say they’ve used e-mail to efficiently verify quotes and confirm the accuracy of complicated subjects or issues.
“It’s a viable technological advance,” Sands said. “Used appropriately it makes our job easier and more effective.”
Bonnie Bressers is an assistant professor of journalism at the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University.