Wick Communications

Should you email questions?

In journalism on 7 Feb 2013 at 4:08 pm

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I think this is a fascinating discussion. The editor of a college newspaper in Florida is all but forbidding her charges from conducting interviews with sources via email.

Let her explain, via the story on the Poynter site:

As a newspaper, is it our job to provide readers with the truth, directly from the source — not from the strategically coordinated voices of public relations staff or prescreened e-mail answers.

We don’t think these responses provide our readers with the unvarnished truth, and we will no longer include them in our articles at the expense of compromising the integrity of the information we provide. University departments do not have one, centralized voice, but rather are made up of a multitude of diverse perspectives.

My first reaction is to shout hallelujah from the rooftop. My second reaction is a bit more nuanced.

First of all, she is absolutely right. Email interviews aren’t really interviews at all. They are a writing exercise, often between the interviewer and a collection of unseen PR types who massage the message until it’s nice and round and palatable.

Often the request that questions be emailed comes from someone who feels he or she has been “burned” in the past. Sometimes this is true. Sometimes we screw up quotes. That is why the words you put in someone’s mouth are so sacrosanct. If word gets out that you can’t be trusted with quotes, requests for emailed questions are the least of your problems. Other times, it’s completely untrue. Sometimes your source said something off the top of her head that made her look like an ignoramus and now she wants to blame you and attempt to control the message going forward. …

In each and every instance that I can think of, in-person or phone interviews are better, for the very reasons Kumar notes in her own letter to readers. (Incidentally, discussing decisions like this with readers is a terrific idea and very enlightened for a young editor.)

Emailing questions is exactly this: It’s allowing your source hours or even days to collect his thoughts and spin a version of events that may well be far, far afield from what he might have said truthfully and extemporaneously.

Having said that…

Most of us do it from time to time. I think there is a place for emailing questions. Doing so acknowledges that sources are busy. It can heal old wounds and win back faith when sources feel they can’t trust you. It does tend to eliminate claims of misquoting. Very occasionally, sources can’t be reached readily any other way.

Let’s make it a math equation: 95 percent of interviews done in person or over the phone + 5 percent over email (or I suppose other electronic means) = all your interviews. That’s one out of 20. I would also note in your story when the source is answering  via email. I might even say that so-and-so refused to be interviewed any other way, if that is the case.

I think this whole issue is fascinating for another reason as well. I think, as a society, we are growing less comfortable dealing with each other and more comfortable dealing with our devices. We – those of us asking the questions – would too often rather not face our sources. It’s just my hunch that this is a problem that is worse now than it was, say, 10 years ago.

What do you think? Do you think emailed questions should be used more often than I suggest? Never?


  1. thanks for addressing this, Clay. I think you offer excellent guidance

  2. 10 years ago it would have been unthinkable to use e-mail for interviews, for all the reasons noted. Sadly, the staffing/fiscal realities of today make it nearly impossible to avoid. So it is important, in my opinion, to at least note in the story that quoted material is from an e-mail.

  3. I dislike e-mail interviews for a different reason — they tend to elicit very brief responses. When you’re not face-to-face or even on the phone you can’t create uncomfortable silences your source feels compelled to fill with a fuller explanation or follow up with a question to something that’s been said. It’s the same reason i rarely prepare questions. The conversation works better when you go through it organically.

    That said, I use them all the time. Literally every day. It’s the easiest way to get hold of busy professionals like cops and a lot of times all you need is one little point cleared up from a source. I’ve played all-day games of phone tag for a single quote before I realized e-mail accomplishes the same goal.

  4. Thanks, guys.

    Andrew, I would make the distinction between “interview” and clearing up a point here and there. I agree that email is an acceptable way to, for example, check whether charges have been filed with the DA. That feels different from a quote, or a series of quotes to me.

  5. I’ve never run into a situation that led to an email interview. Email questions? It just goes against the spirit of what an interview is. From there it no longer and interview it is a press release.
    I had a MMA promotor yesterday ask if I wanted to email questions for a fighter or do a phone interview. My response was phone of course.
    A person to person interview allows for spontaneity and a “breath” of life into the story.
    To use email and interview together as a concept is like trying to make an “Orangpple” it is incongruous.
    My personal opinion is an email for interview purposes is just another cheap short cut in the news business for lazy reporters. Make it one percent of the time that it should be used. Remember, who is in control the reporter or the one being interviewed.

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