One of the biggest challenges I face as a journalism adviser is convincing my students that email interviews need to be a last resort rather than their go-to.
I get it — emails are quick and easy. Write a few questions, get responses in complete sentences back. No need to transcribe or deal with awkward verbal phrasings. Seems like a no-brainer. In a 2003 Poynter article, Jonathan Dube outlined some of the benefits of email interviews, then a relatively new journalistic tool: saving time, being efficient, creating a written record, providing time for the source to think and prepare, and working with people in different time zones or who write English better than they speak it.
But he also pointed out potential pitfalls: not knowing who is replying (is this actually the superintendent, or did she just hand it off to an assistant?), not being able to follow up with more questions based on the direction of the interview, losing control of the interview transcript, missing out on body language and verbal cues that might provide more insight, and — ultimately — ending up with an interview that is unlikely to provide revealing or new information.
These last reasons are especially important for interviews where students are doing more than just “covering” (providing info the community likely already knows) — if they want to uncover information, they will be best served by face-to-face interviews. You can find out what the soccer game score was or verify the spelling of a name in an email. If you want to dig deeper, though, you need to have a conversation.
I think back to when I wrote a profile of yearbook adviser guru H.L. Hall’s contributions to the ASNE Reynolds summer journalism workshops. I could have sent Hall a list of questions, and I’m sure he would have sent me thoughtful answers back, but I wouldn’t have heard him describe the perfect winter morning or sing the first song he and his wife ever danced to (“It’s All in the Game” by Tommy Edwards). I wouldn’t have been able to ask about why he walks every morning before the sun comes up, even on the coldest Missouri winter mornings, or how these early-morning walks contribute to his boundless energy in adviser workshops. I wouldn’t have the sense of him as a person that I did by the end of that hour. These kinds of conversations bring life and vitality to profiles.
Face-to-face interviews are also invaluable in situations when student journalists are conducting investigations. Gordana Igric’s 2010 "Tips for successful investigative journalism” outlines many suggestions, including the vital importance of conducting thoughtful, thorough research before talking with a source, but she’s very clear about interview formats: "Interviews in person are always preferable. If that's not possible, then speaking by phone is also fine but never — unless there is no other option — interview by email. If you do, make clear in the copy that any quotes you use were obtained by email."
This tip is especially important when interviewing sources who might want to obfuscate the truth. "Schedule interviews with potentially hostile or evasive subjects for near the end of your research as you will be better prepared to question and challenge their remarks,” Igric writes. Journalists may be left with nothing more than talking points or inaccurate assertions if they rely solely on email.
For all these reasons, I make my students’ lives harder — but their reporting better — by “just saying no” to email interviews. If journalism’s social role in a democratic society is to uncover truth, journalists must take the time to seek that truth in person.
“And though she be but little, she is fierce!” -A Midsummer Night’s Dream