I received an email from a Chico State vice president at the end of spring semester asking why The Orion had changed its policy about email interviews. It hadn't, but I know a teachable moment when I see one, so I responded with an explanation for why both reporter and source should avoid them:
Students in my classes, including The Orion, are encouraged to conduct interviews in person for several reasons:
- Direct quotations are an important part of most stories, and written responses generally sound wooden and bureaucratic (they sound written). The "sound" of someone's voice in a story tells the reader a lot about them and their command of a topic. Also, a lot of journalistic work involves translating the jargon of sources into plain, understandable English, and allowing a source to respond in writing defeats that purpose.
- It's impossible in an email interview to take nonverbal cues from a source or for a source to read the reporter's nonverbal cues as questions are asked and answered. This leads to misunderstandings and missed opportunities to clarify information in the responses. For example, if a reporter is interviewing you and you see her stop writing on her pad or scrunching up her face, you understand that she isn't comprehending what you're saying and you'll rephrase your answer or even ask her if she is understanding your point. That doesn't happen over email. That's also why I tell my students it's worth their time and effort to interview someone face-to-face rather than on the phone.
- Sources who have public relations professionals working for them sometimes turn over questions to them to craft the "best" answers, but the reader is told that the original source uttered those words, and that's inaccurate and dishonest. (Attributing a comment or quotation to a "news release" is one way journalists signal to readers that a comment has been prepared for public consumption.)
- It's difficult and time consuming to ask follow up questions, which are often necessary to clarify information, in an email. Time is in short supply in newsrooms. Miscommunication can take several emails to sort out what a couple of in-person questions could make clear.
- In-person interviews are conversations, not simply a means to transmit information. A conversation allows both source and reporter to find other angles and approaches to stories that might be more important or interesting to readers. Interviews are also the best way to break down preconceived ideas about a story and allow a source to explain a point of view instead of just providing information. (Have you ever felt a reporter was asking "the wrong question"? That's because he or she has a preconceived idea of what a story is about).
Journalism textbooks make these same points about the desirability of in-person interviews, so it isn't a Chico State or Orion peculiarity. I think reporters and sources who prefer exchanging information by email are doing both themselves and their constituencies a disservice.