Is an email interview worthy of being called an interview?

I have never liked email interviews. Sources’ responses to questions end up sounding like press release quotes, and you don’t actually, truly know whether the answers are coming from the actual interviewee, or a handler. That’s why at the Missourian, we avoid email interviews and why we’re transparent with readers when a quote or piece of information came from one.

So I was pretty interested in this bit of news from Poynter.

Have you been asked by a source to email your questions and to conduct the interview via email? If so, how did you handle it?

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6 Responses to Is an email interview worthy of being called an interview?

  1. samanthasunne says:

    I’ve gotten that response a few times, usually from sources who already know they are dealing with questions they’d rather not deal with. The worst is when the organization has a policy of requiring all questions ahead of time, so then they can hide behind their “media policy.” I try avoid giving sources advance notice, but in some cases, I might give in if it’s unavoidable and won’t cause too much harm. That situation occurred for a Missourian story just last week. One tip I’ve gotten from IRE people is to email very general questions in order to guarantee yourself an interview, and then be more specific or pointed during the interview itself.

  2. Meghan Eldridge says:

    I try to avoid giving people I interview the questions beforehand, because, as the Poynter piece pointed out, many times the answer to the question isn’t found in what the person says, but rather what they say nonverbally. Giving people questions before the interview can be helpful in some cases, say when dealing with a situation that has a historical past or something that requires data in the answers, but shouldn’t be part of a reporters routine. Doing so with any and all stories can lead to another problem: a lack of transparency, and even the risk of accuracy errors when the truth is hidden by hours of time to prep an answer.

  3. danikass says:

    I really only do interviews by email if I just have to confirm facts on a short deadline. Otherwise, you might as well be working from a press release, with how crafted the answers are. When people are careful about what they say and then get to check it before you see it, you miss almost all the good stories/facts. Plus, follow-up questions are awkward to ask. The entire interview feels inauthentic and not genuine.

  4. clandsbaum says:

    I’ve used email interviews twice this semester: once when confirming facts for the Spring Preview issue (basic things like where/when/ticket price) and once when I had to contact the Artistic Director of a ballet company in Moscow. The second situation was sketchier but couldn’t really be helped due to the distance. I ended up only using one of the quotes from the email and made sure to say “Daev said in an email” afterwards, just to make things clear. It’s best to avoid email interviews; they sound canned and overly rehearsed and often don’t give the reporter an accurate representation of the source.

  5. shannonrobb says:

    I’ve come across a few instances of sources asking to know what I will be asking beforehand (not necessarily asking for the interview to be done by email, but it’s the same basic premise–allowing them time to formulate and censor their responses). In these instances, I generally gave them the very basic premise and the different sorts of questions I may ask without revealing any actual questions. It generally seemed to satisfy them because they were able to begin brainstorming, but I still had the opportunity to extract genuine, real-time responses when it came to the actual interview.

    I think the blended approach to interviewing mentioned in the article is the best. Email can, in fact, be quite useful when it comes to fact checking and confirming the who/what/when sorts of questions. Email should, by no means, be the only method of interviewing, though. The details we receive from actually talking with someone face-to-face (or even on the phone, though it’s not as good as in person) are what make stories really interesting. Every journalism class I have been in has emphasized telling a story about a person. As Sara Shipley Hiles pointed out last Thursday, the New York Times’ Adderall story could have easily been written simply using medical reports and statistics, but it was the focus on an actual person that made the story as powerful as it was. If Alan Schwarz, who wrote the Adderall story, had conducted all of his interviews by email, we would have seen a hint of a spark in the story, the beginnings of a deeper story, but it likely would have been lacking the same draw. Using only email interviews is just a small step up from using only medical reports and statistics to formulate a story.

  6. carolinebmn says:

    While I agree email interviews should be avoided at all costs, sometimes they are your only option. I remember one breaking news piece I covered was when it was announced Clair Willcox would be returning to the UM Press. I desperately wanted to include Willcox’s opinion in my article, and the only way he would commit to an interview was through email. Though the interview would have been 10 times better had it been in person, his opinion via email was better than no opinion at all. Though I generally think email interviews are used as a cop out, I’m hesitant to outlaw them all together.

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