The E-mail Interview

In a recent posting on Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits blog, Paul Bradshaw tackled questions over who owns the interview in an era where reporters are increasingly relying on e-mail not only as a form of communication but also as a way to interview sources.

Interestingly enough, the blog post prompted some discussion over e-mail with one of my colleagues.  Citing budgetary woes at publications, he defended the use of e-mail interviews despite the many issues raised by Bradshaw.  In the spirit of Bradshaw’s post, I’m posting most of my comments from the e-mail exchange here:

My take is that e-mail interviews should be a last resort, if a resort at all, and that’s what I teach.  Too many journalists (including our students) use it as a first resort because they’re too lazy to go interview someone in person or on the phone.  Point taken on budgets but I don’t think that is why journalists use e-mail to interview.

The main issue that arises, as this article points out, is one of interview control.  The interviewer loses control to the interviewee when conducting an e-mail interview — that’s what Bradshaw is talking about when he mentions a shift in the balance of power.

Consider that in an e-mail interview, we don’t even know if the person e-mailed is the one answering the questions — it may be some PR person in the office.  And, yes, body posture and ‘stuff’ is important — it can often tell a larger story than what the person is actually saying.  I had one interesting case during the bootcamp where students were able to get the cell phone number of the PR person at Health Services simply because they went to the office and started chatting up her office mate, who gave up the information when asked (which never would have happened via e-mail.)  In the era of ‘text-first, talk later” the value of face-to-face communication cannot be undervalued — especially in journalism.

In Bradshaw’s case, he asks the reporter if it’s Ok to publish the e-mail exchange on his blog *after* the story is published.  Unlike a face-to-face or phone interview, the reporter here has provided the interviewee with the transcript of the interview and evidence perhaps that some key information was left out of the story — so Bradshaw wants to publish the raw information.  There are plenty of bloggers/writers out there running transcripts of their email and IM interviews so it’s an interesting, developing area.  Not sure how you would say ‘no’ here and clearly the reporter struggled on how to handle this.  And, as this case shows, Bradshaw got more mileage out of the reporter’s negative reaction.

On the larger scale, Bradshaw’s example goes to the whole concept of journalistic transparency.  As we continue to move toward a circular form of communication between editor/reporter and reader/user, shouldn’t we be Ok with this form of transparency?  The era of reporter/editor/writer as deity/sage is gone.  It’s all about transparency and letting the reader/user in.  That’s how publications are going to grow their audiences — not by diving behind copyright law.

As for Facebook, it occupies this grey area of public/private, although too many people (including our students) think it’s private.  Twitter is a publishing tool and those on Twitter acknowledge the comments of others via retweeting — Twitter language for attribution in 140 characters.  There is actually a new culture of attribution/acknowledgement arising in the Twitter world.  It’s interesting to watch/take part in.

And, I agree, it will be fascinating to watch the law develop in this area.



About journalismprof

Steve joined the journalism faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in August 2007 and has been working to incorporate multimedia across the curriculum. Since arriving at UMass, Steve has developed three courses modeled after his multimedia journalism course. The courses allow students to work in teams in a newsroom-like environment where they work on packages -- using video, audio and photos to tell stories. He is also working with students on developing, a news Web site staffed completely by students. Steve has more than 25 years of experience as an editor and reporter for print and online publications, including 10 as an editor at He also edits part-time for with the NFL and college football network.
This entry was posted in E-Mail Interviews, Future of Journalism, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The E-mail Interview

  1. The question of who owns the interview is a stupid one, and I’ll bet that the anonymous journalist Bradshaw talks about was acting out of concern over her organization’s policy about this stuff.

    As far as when to rely on an email or Facebook interaction with a source, for me the hierarchy is pretty clear-cut:

    In person > phone > email > Facebook.

    In the past I’ve used email to get the trading card biographical stuff: age, place of birth, job history, etc. and fleshed it out with follow up interviews. That way the in-person interview can be more like a conversation and less like you’re filling out a questionnaire.

    One thing you didn’t touch on is something I’m a little ambivalent about: the Skype interview. Better than an email, and probably a phone call, but still no substitute for the real thing.

    Thanks for posting, Steve.

  2. theRed says:

    I believe there are many negative issues when it comes to getting information by email, but the words “last resort” and “laziness” shouldn’t come into the equation of gathering information for a story.

    I think email is a good function to gather information. The AJR had an article about this a couple of years back:

    There are some journalists who still swear by short-hand, even though there are so few short-handers left, and their is a huge explosion in affordable audio recorders and manual/computer transcription services.

    All these changes also showcase a great need: A need for teachers, professors and journalism professionals to immerse themselves in all the technology that can retrieve, coordinate, and produce media.

    As with S.P.’s question with Skype, or with my concerns with email interviews, I think if there is more integration and informal usage of all technology to develop stories, I think we can all come up to new standards for producing stories to media.

  3. theRed says:

    Also, as for Skype/phone, as long as the source is true, there isn’t anything wrong with conducting an interview in this format.

    NPR conducts many double-feed interviews ( where two people are in different areas ) and have been successful at producing remote interviews as well as combining the feeds to make it “feel” as though both people are in the same room ( many of “Fresh Air’s” interviews are conducted between Philadelphia and Florida ).

    Just my two cents on the matter. I am more of a blogger, so my experience is skewed.

  4. Pingback: How journalists decide whether to interview by phone, email or face-to-face « EDDY KIMANI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s