Friday, July 29, 2005

Talking (Journalism) Shop

A reader posts a comment about Derrick Gingery:
This is related to an older post, but your mention of Gingery brought reminded me of it. Didn't you say that Gingery interviewed you by e-mail for his blog story in GFWBW a while back? When I was in J-School, all our profs emphasized that e-mail interviewing should be by last resort only. I agree, because you get much more natural-sounding quotes that way. What's your take?
To clarify: Derrick interviewed me via email for a Fort Files item about the creation of this blog, not his later story about my conflict with MediaWatch. The reason that Derrick asked me questions via email for that story is because that was the only way he knew how to contact me. I had just started FWMN and didn't list a phone number, only an email address. The next time he wanted to talk to me (for the MediaWatch story), he made clear that he wanted to speak with me over the phone and asked me to call him.

As to my feelings in general about email interviews vs. those conducted over the phone or in person, I agree that you always want the most "natural-sounding" quotes, but I'm not sure how you define that, exactly. Most of us, when we're speaking, add a lot of "ums" and "ahs" and we stumble over our words. But reporters don't often quote all of those pauses and stumblings in their stories, do they? (I'm not advocating them to, by the way.) There's usually a little bit of polishing of those quotes to make them easier for the readers to read.

That's why I think email interviews aren't such a bad thing. As an interviewee, I'd much prefer to have the chance to write down and re-read my answer to a particular question than have to ramble through an answer and trust the reporter to clean it up without losing the essence of what I was saying -- or trying to say. In that respect, I think that written interviews can be a lot more valuable, to both the source and the reporter. (It also makes life a little bit easier for the writer, who can copy and paste from the email instead of having to transcribe the interview or notes from the interview.)

One drawback is that you don't get to ask follow-up questions, but that's where interviewing via instant messaging comes in -- a little bit of the best of both worlds: written responses and the back-and-forth that great reporters have mastered.

Of course, you need a subject who is a good typist and good writer, and has access to a computer and the Internet. In most cases, traditional interviewing techniques are faster and easier than these new "unapproved" methods of getting information.

Ultimately, what matters is not how you interview (at least in my opinion), but how interesting your story is. If interviewing by email gets you better quotes and leads to better stories, then I'm all for it.

Journalism professors be damned.

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