The E-Mail Interview Debate: They Give More Control to Sources, and They Can Be Stilted and Scripted. Some Journalists Resort to Them Too Easily. A Number of College Newspapers Have Banned Them. but E-Mail Interviews Remain an Essential Part of the Mix

Article excerpt

When asked about the decision of a handful of college newspapers to stop using e-mail interviews, David Royse tells a story about a recent deadline.

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One of Royse's Capitol reporters had been chatting up a source who told him Florida Gov. Rick Scott was about to stun his fellow Republican governors by agreeing to expand the state's Medicaid program for nearly 1 million people.

Royse, executive editor of The News Service of Florida, by temperament and necessity a working reporter, had seen the same tip a little earlier on Twitter. Immediately, Royse's small staff was a blunderbuss, blowing frantic shotgun blasts of phone calls, e-mails and tweets to sources for confirmation.

Royse caught one of his reliable sources with an e-mail query, and the two began an exchange while the source was on the phone talking to another reporter.

Just before Royse posted what they had to the service's Web site, Will Weatherford, speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, e-mailed a statement reacting to Scott's decision. Before Scott had made his announcement.

Royse pressed the publish key.

"You had four forms of newsgathering going on there," Royse says. "It was shoe leather at the Capitol that got it started, but seeing it on Twitter made me pretty sure it was true. We're on the phone and e-mailing, and that's how we get the speaker's reaction statement."

Why, Royse wondered, would anyone want to take e-mail out of the mix?

For the same reasons that journalism professionals put e-mail at the very bottom of their interviewing hierarchies, below the interview in person, below the phone interview.

Veteran reporters who benefit from e-mail every day think too many of their colleagues are relying too often on e-mail interviewing. They think it's lazy. They think readers are cheated. They think they are cheated by sources who want an advantage in an interview situation.

E-mail deprives the reporter of all of the sensory advantages of the other interview styles. Facial expressions, gestures, posture. The sound and the cadence of the voice. The emphasis on words or phrases. The pauses.

As fast and convenient as they are, e-mail interviews are never really conducted in real time. The timing of the response, the allowance for measured and edited replies create an artificiality readers recognize.

"I understand the impulse to ban e-mail interviews altogether," Sandy Banisky says, although she doesn't do it herself.

Banisky has been teaching urban affairs reporting for the past five years as the Abell Professor in Baltimore Journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. She came to the school after a long career at the Baltimore Sun, where she was deputy managing editor for news when she made the switch.

Students come into her reporting classes with computer researching skills beyond anything she mastered in 38 years at the Sun. Most of them prefer to communicate with their closest friends via computer and smartphone. Most have no idea of the advantages of getting up from their desks, knocking on a door and asking questions of someone in person.

"I strongly insist that they first go to see somebody. Show me you knocked on a door. Make a contact. If you call and don't get an answer, call again. And again. And again," Banisky says. "I'd like to see evidence of a different effort before you use e-mail."

Banisky teaches her students to use e-mail like it was a grenade, "a tool that can be wildly useful, but it's also fraught with dangers."

Deciding where e-mail fits into the equation isn't exactly new. "I still think it can be great for interviews, but as long as you use it, and don't let it use you," Staci Kramer, journalism blogger and then at-large director of the Society of Professional Journalists, told AJR. …