May 23, 2007

Interviewing by email? by blog?

Email interviews can be dangerously attractive for both journalists and sources.

Here are a few reasons why they’re attractive: Email-formatted interviews can happen at anytime of the day. They require no scheduling. The reporter simply shoots off a list of questions. The source can take his or her time answering, thinking of exactly what they want to say so they get their response just right. Personally, I would much prefer being interviewed by email because I’m more articulate and thoughtful when I write than when I’m talking off the top of my head. From a reporter’s perspective, it’s lots easier to cut and paste quotes into a story, than to transcribe a recorded interview or type up notes.

So it’s no wonder more and more interviews are being conducted this way. But I chose the phrase “dangerously attractive” because I think getting comfortable with the by-email-only terms some sources are demanding is a step a journalist can take toward working mindlessly.

“Wait, wait, wait a second,” this is a voice inside my head, which has just reminded me of an interview I conducted by email just last week. Here’s the backstory: I’ve met with this particular subject in person probably a half dozen times over the past month for an immersion journalism project I’m doing. Mostly I hang out and ask a question here and there, but she’s been a little cagey and not detailed in her responses. So I tried a different track. I sent an email with just a couple questions. The next morning I opened my email to find a lengthy and exceedingly honest response. Wow, I thought as I emailed her back asking for a clarification of a few things she mentioned and posing a few more questions. And within a few hours she sent an opus, an emotional, highly detailed account of the past few years of her life. By the end of the email she was thanking me for asking and showing interest.

So I guess I can’t completely write off the email-formatted interview. Now that I think about it, the more comfortable we become in communicating through electronic media, the more it will be like communicating face-to-face. In fact, when I think of what people willing to put on their MySpace pages, it seems like people are already more comfortable with sharing the details of their private lives through electronic media than in person.

Here’s what that got me thinking about this in the first place: Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post wrote a column
this week about how electronic communication in general and blogging specifically is changing the way the journalistic interview is being conducted.

Here are the opening paragraphs:
Interviews, Going the Way of the Linotype?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 21, 2007; Page C01

The humble interview, the linchpin of journalism for centuries, is under assault.

It is a transaction that clearly favors the person asking the questions. A print reporter writes down someone's answers, then picks and chooses how much, if any, to use, how to frame the quotes and where to put any contrary information. Television correspondents slice and dice taped interviews in similar fashion.

But in the digital age, some executives and commentators are saying they will respond only by e-mail, which allows them to post the entire exchange if they feel they have been misrepresented, truncated or otherwise disrespected. And some go further, saying, You want to know what I think? Read my blog.

"The balance of power has shifted," says Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at New York University. "Everyone used to be landlocked, and the media was the outlet to the sea of public discussion. But now there are many routes. . . . Readers have more power because they have more sources, and sources have more power because they can go direct to readers."

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