Email interviews get a bad rap in the Missouri School of Journalism, and we’re not sure why. We hear that email interviews are the sign of an amateur, but it’s the primary way J-School Buzz talks to sources. We need to change the idea that email interviews have no place in journalism and restore their good name.
Email Interviews are More Convenient for Sources AND Journalists
Let’s just admit it up front: the most important reason J-School Buzz relies on email interviews is because they are the easiest interviewing option for both us and our sources.
Many tips we get for stories like this or this come from people who can’t be seen (or heard) passing along a story to JSB. It’s easier to surreptitiously send an email to our Tips line than to find one of us in person.
It is also easier for us as journalists to shoot off a late-night email to a potential source than it is to leave a voicemail. Even if the source gets back to us the next day, it might not be a time that works for us. The great thing about email interviews is that they can be conducted at a time that is best for the journalist and the source.
Every journalism student knows one of the most frustrating parts of reporting is finding a time that works for you and your source. You need to schedule interviews around extracurricular activities and classes, and you’re not a real Mizzou journalism student until you have blown off class to conduct a do-or-die interview with THE MOST IMPORTANT SOURCE EVER. Email interviews eliminate this problem, as journalists can write their questions when they are free, and sources can respond when they have the time later that day.
Of course, if a source doesn’t answer your emailed questions in a timely fashion, you can still pick up the phone. Email and phone interviews aren’t mutually exclusive.
Email Interviews Guarantee Accurate Quotes
You are not a real journalist until you have been accused of making up or inaccurately spinning a source’s quote, or god forbid, taking their words out of context. I was accused of that sort of thing a few times during my summer internship at the Daily Herald in the Chicago suburbs. The charges were never true, but I could never prove it unless I wanted to put the whole audio recording online, which I’m not even sure the Herald was capable of doing.
Often, sources will accuse a text journalist of misquoting them because they honestly don’t remember uttering the quote. In a perfect world, every journalist would email every source after every interview with a quote check, but alas, this is not a perfect world and journalists don’t always have the time to transcribe and email sources with those quotes. Some do, but most don’t.
That summer at the Daily Herald was my only experience writing for a print news source where I did strictly phone interviews and typed up my notes in Google Docs. After that, I recorded all my interviews for KBIA stories and emailed most of my interviews for J-School Buzz.
But email interviews are not perfect. That is not the point of this diatribe. Mizzou journalism students just need to recognize that email interviews can produce a lot of good information and can have an important place in doing good journalism.
I just stumbled onto one of the limitations of email interviews: they work best for text sources. While JSB has published plenty of videos and graphics and podcasts, we are primarily a text publication. That is one of many reasons why email interviews work so well for us, but might not be the best idea for audio-centric news services like KBIA or video-centric outlets like KOMU. Emails read aloud don’t make for thrilling audio or video, but text is text.
Sources Hold Journalists Accountable for Correct Quotes
With email interviews, a journalist has no choice but to get the quote exactly right. Not only is it brain-dead simple to copy and paste an email into your story, but both the journalist and the source have a transcript of the interview. If you mess up and publish a misquote, the source has the proof. That added bit of accountability on journalists would make sure we don’t take any “liberties” with their words.
Plenty of our sources have taken to the J-School Buzz comments section to publish the entire interview transcript. They generally wanted the full context of the conversation to be conveyed to our readers, because they had more to say to JSB’s audience than the one or two sentences we boiled their thoughts down to.
Sources Deliver Articulate Answers in Email Interviews
A good source isn’t always the most articulate one; good sources have the scoops and inside information no one else can give you. But that doesn’t mean they are great at conveying that information in a concise way without restarting their sentences and dropping a lot of “umms” you need to fudge out of the quote for tomorrow’s paper.
That’s definitely not adhering to J-School Ethics, but don’t even pretend like you haven’t done the same exact thing.
My point is that when you email a source, they can take a moment to articulate their information exactly as they want to communicate it. When a source types out the information they have, they are writing it exactly as they wish to tell it to you, because they can go back and edit it without a lot of messy “umms” or back-tracking. This helps 90 percent of sources, but then there’s the ten percent of sources who you should never email interview. That ten percent includes anyone with a secretary, which brings me to one of my rules for reporting:
Never Trust a Source With a Secretary
This might just be the anti-authoritarian side of me, but I make it a policy in my reporting to be extra skeptical of any source who has a secretary. These are people who have amassed enough power in their professional lives they can’t be bothered to answer all their incoming calls or schedule all their own appointments. They need a whole other person to do that.
Never conduct an email interview with someone who has a secretary, because it’s probably the secretary who will end up writing the answers to your questions. That is not always the case, but it is something you have to worry about it you try to conduct an email interview with someone who has their own secretary.
What’s Your Point, JSB?
Email interviews are not perfect, that’s not what we are saying. But they do have their place in quality reporting, and the Missouri School of Journalism’s affiliated newsrooms should embrace them as a tool for effective reporting.