An Oklahoma City TV station reported in September that local emergency rooms were turning away gunshot victims because they were inundated by victims of ivermectin overdose.
Great story — and one fitting into the media narrative debunking the myth that ivermectin, an anti-parasitic medicine used for livestock, can be used as a COVID-19 preventive. It was such a tantalizing story that it was picked up by The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone, Business Insider, Rachel Maddow and more. Needless to say, it also went viral on social media.
This time, however, the debunkers were debunked. USA Today’s fact-checker did what the other outlets should have done, and checked the story out.
As Fox’s media critic Howard Kurtz said on “MediaBuzz,” “If they’d bothered to make just one phone call, they’d have learned it was all BS.”
Dan Boudreaux, a freelancer in Lafayette, Louisiana, who himself contributes hurricane stories to The Daily Beast, concurred.
“Zaid Jilani, formerly of The Intercept, now on Substack and completely independent, took 30 minutes to call the sheriff for the county in question, and confirmed that there had been two gunshot victims in the county for the entire year so far and none in the past two months, so that was another angle of the story that was easily debunked with a single phone call,” he wrote — admittedly, by email.
Journalists today certainly have more tools at their disposal, including emails, tweets and texts, to glean quotes and information from sources. But at what cost? Emailing questions to a subject or relying on supplied information without actually face-to-face — or, at least, phone-to-phone or Zoom — conversation can lead to error and embarrassment. It can contribute to a further disconnect between media outlets and their audiences, as well as grist for the anti-media right wing — and some on the left, as well — offering them “proof” that the mainstream media lack credibility.
While COVID restrictions and safety concerns certainly have played a part in resistance to in-person interviews, the blame can’t entirely fall on the pandemic.
“There is a growing trend of journalists not going out and hitting the beat, only sitting in offices and calling people,” Boudreaux added. “Also, many local news organizations are disappearing and creating news deserts. Add to that that news in general is centralizing in big cities and only focusing there; it obviously leads to further separation of journalists from the majority of people.”
Boudreaux omitted another key variable in this simple equation: laziness.
This unwillingness for too many journalists at even local media to get out into their communities and actually interact with their sources and consumers was the topic of a panel at the recent virtual Society of Professional Journalists national convention. The panelists were Nikki Usher, a journalism professor at the University of Illinois and author of the recently published book, “News for the Rich, White and Blue”; and Lynn Walsh, assistant director of Trusting News and a past SPJ president. They stressed the importance of going out into the community and interacting with media skeptics so that the two groups can better understand each other.
Christiaan Mader, editor of the Lafayette, Louisiana, non-profit news start up The Current, blamed the disconnect between journalists and sources more on overwork than on laziness.
“I’ll defend my colleagues,” he wrote. “Episodes like this are often a direct result of news competing in the attention marketplace. Reporters are working three stories a day and managing an active social media presence. The demands of the attention economy put unbelievable pressure on publishers and reporters to do bad journalism. Would that we could take a breath.”
But Nerissa Young, a professor at the Scripps School at Ohio University, complained that she is seeing an overreliance on email interviewing at the college level.
“I have to push students and threaten an F if they do email interviews,” she wrote. “They don’t want to call people on the phone to interview them.”
Much less talk to them face-to-face.
Kathryn Jones, regional coordinator for SPJ’s Region 8 (Texas and Oklahoma) and a former full-time J-prof at Tarleton State in Stephenville, Texas, agreed.
“I experienced that, too, when I taught journalism,” she related. “The largest problems to me were lack of critical thinking and relying too much on the internet. You’re right, some young journalists in training don’t like to talk to sources in person or even by phone. They’re more comfortable with email, texting and keeping a distance. Maybe that’s sometimes necessary during a pandemic, but covering something like a hurricane demands feet on the ground, person- to-person communication and checking information.
“I got very discouraged after five years in academia and left teaching to return to freelancing,” she continued. “Between the crappy teacher pay and pushback from admins, I decided I needed to look out for me. I worry about the future of journalism, although there are still some fearless, aggressive, idealistic young people who want to become journalists and will do the difficult and sometimes tedious work to get facts straight.”
Sonny Albarado, a retired editor from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and a past national SPJ president, also concurred with Young, but added, “This is not a new phenomenon. Even before social media gained ascendancy, I and other editors had to push newbies to go beyond one email or even one phone call to contact sources. Hell, sometimes you gotta go see the sources where they are — at work or at home.”
I, too, began encountering this by the time I retired from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 2017. I had to start warning my students that “he/she didn’t answer my email/voicemail” (singular!) is not a valid excuse.
My own horror anecdote: I assigned my public affairs reporting class each spring to write localized international stories about countries in the news, with each student assigned a different country. The stories were published in a special section of the school paper in conjunction with UL’s International Week. My last year, one student had a Latin American country, so because of my background in the region, I told her to come by my office and use me as one of her three required sources.
“Oh, I’ll just send you an email,” she said rather cavalierly.
“No, you won’t!” I told her. “You can sit down and ask me questions face-to-face.” She did…grudgingly.
Before email interviewing became so commonplace, I encountered another problem with some students: plain old shyness. One young man, who was an excellent writer, was so shy that he dropped advanced reporting after two weeks because, he confided to me later, he could not bring himself to conduct the interviews required for the assignments. He took the required course a year later, conducted the requisite interviews, passed, graduated and went on to a successful career at the Houma Courier in Louisiana, and the Tampa Tribune as a desk editor.
Can the shyness factor be overcome in J-school? Kelly Kissel, an Associated Press veteran and former SPJ regional director, now metro editor at The Advocate in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, offered a tip.
“During the one year I taught college to help out a dean at Penn State, a tactic I stole from Jay Perkins at LSU was to assign reporters to some public event where there’d be a reception,” he explained. “They were to talk to two or three people who were not the featured speaker/guest of honor. To show their work, I had them write something about what they learned about them.
“While it was for a grade, it wasn’t necessarily for a story. I just wanted people to learn how to break the ice with complete strangers. Hell, I would have been OK if they broke the ice with ’My instructor wants me to talk to people. Can I talk to you?’ The important part was having the human interaction. Maybe it worked because I was in the room with them watching them, but I’d say that by the end of the year they were confident and perhaps comfortable. Some are still in the business after 30 years.”
I, too, used the “baby steps” approach when I taught introductory newswriting. As an assignment, students had to interview another in the class for a profile, as well as a faculty member they knew. The profiles were frequently published in the school paper, giving them their first-ever bylines and clips, along with the accompanying ego boost and practical interviewing experience. In advanced reporting, I often invited guest speakers into the classroom to be interviewed, which was the journalistic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. I’d ask the first question to break the ice.
Of course, in-person interviews aren’t always possible or can meet with resistance. I experienced this frustration firsthand last spring when I agreed to cover the regular session of the Louisiana Legislature for Mader’s The Current. It’s bad enough that Louisiana House members don’t even have individual offices with telephones. But rarely will the legislators answer a phone call or email sent to their posted numbers/ addresses. (You’d think our legislators didn’t want the press to hold them accountable or something.)
It wasn’t cost-effective to drive 100 miles round-trip to Baton Rouge just to ambush them for direct quotes, so I used quotes from floor debates, which are streamed live. Better than nothing, but worse than personal contact.
Email interviewing does have its advocates on the receiving end, like Steven Leibo, a history professor at Sage Colleges in Troy, New York, and international affairs commentator for WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
“After a lifetime of phone interviews, I much prefer journalists to email me with questions because I can more easily ensure that I am quoted correctly,” he wrote.
There is that advantage, on this end, too, of quote accuracy, not to mention the delightful ease of just copying and pasting quotes from an email into a story.
But what happens if you receive the email close to deadline and you have a follow-up question, or you need to clarify something in the quote? Or worse, as is often the case, you never get that email reply? Alexander Graham Bell’s 146-year-old invention is still an indispensable journalistic tool.
Freelance writer Boudreaux, formerly a reporter for The Courier in Houma, was confronted with that reality when covering the aftermath of Hurricane Ida for The Daily Beast. He knew the area well, but “I couldn’t get into any of the hurricane-affected areas without a press pass, and they weren’t reading freelance as an excuse,” he complained.
Instead, he said, he called three sources he knew and gleaned quotes from them.
“While I think the differences between phone and in-person are not too vast, as you are still able to ask questions and get clarification to answers in real time, email and text have far more drawbacks than advantages in my opinion,” he maintained. “The waiting for responses and then waiting for replies to follow-ups slows everything down,” he added. “Also, it’s less personal. You’re just text on a screen. They can’t put a voice or face to a name. I also find that if people know you and have met you on multiple occasions, they are much more willing to talk and help you with finding sources for a story that you can’t than if they just know you as some random person from this paper or TV station.”
The best example, he said, was when he was with the Courier and got one of the first interviews with Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., four months after he was critically wounded in a shooting during a congressional baseball game in 2017.
“It was really kind of inspiring,” he recalled (this time in a telephone conversation). “He used a walker and refused to let anyone help him when he came into the (newspaper) building. I would have missed all that, and I would never have been able to write it as well if I hadn’t been sitting across the table from him.”
Journalistic history suggests that in person, when possible, is the better bet, and far more compelling. Imagine David Frost having to rely on emails, tweets or texts — which thankfully did not yet exist — for the legendary 1977 mea culpa interview with former President Richard Nixon.
It just wouldn’t have been the same.
Robert Buckman, Ph.D., is a retired journalism professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and is vice president of the SPJ’s Louisiana Pro Chapter.