The E-Mail Interview Debate  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April/May 2013

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.Mon., April 1, 2013.

By Mark Lisheron
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (mark@texaswatchdog.org) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.      


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.

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. In 1997.

"But while many journalists laud e-mail's speed and efficiency, others remain leery of using it to conduct interviews, citing it as less transparent and credible than more traditional reporting methods. Using e-mail interviews may eliminate rounds of phone tag, but skeptics say it also eliminates the candor, spontaneity and natural dialogue that make for engaging conversations and compelling stories." Kim Hart wrote that in AJR in 2006.

Last September, then-Editor Henry Rome published a column in a college newspaper, the Daily Princetonian, beneath the headline "Can We Talk?".Had the column been given a deck, it might have read, "From now on, we at the Daily Princetonian will do nothing but talk."

"Effective immediately, the 'Prince' News section is ending its policy of allowing sources to comment over email," Rome wrote. "We believe this change in the News section is in the best interest of reporters, sources and, most importantly, you, our readers." Here's how Rome explained his rationale:

"Interviews are meant to be genuine, spontaneous conversations that allow a reporter to gain a greater understanding of a source's perspective. However, the use of the email interview and its widespread presence in our News articles has resulted in stories filled with stilted, manicured quotes that often hide any real meaning and make it extremely difficult for reporters to ask follow-up questions or build relationships with sources."

A month later, editors at the Stanford Daily made the same decision using much the same explanation. And at the beginning of this spring semester, the Oracle, the University of South Florida student paper, told its reporters they would do their truth seeking directly, "not from the strategically coordinated voices of public relations staff or prescreened e-mail answers."

In each case the messages were the same. College students coming to journalism are part of a social media culture that threatens to make it easier for media-savvy representatives of our public and private institutions to shape, package and deliver the truth on their terms.

Rome was a reporter for the Princetonian for two-and-a-half years, and from the beginning he and the roughly two dozen other reporters and editors were expected to navigate a school administration that preferred to get inquiries in writing.

Editors worried that young reporters were too comfortable with an arrangement that, in their minds, gave a clear advantage to the sources. "I'd say three quarters of the stories we did got at least a chunk of their information from e-mail, filtered and heavily massaged," Rome says.

Just as important, students weren't practicing the interview forms reporters have depended upon to develop sources and to gather sights, sounds, smells and tastes that inform and 
enrich stories.

Princetonian editors asked for the support of administrators well in advance of Rome's column. Administrators who in the past operated only through e-mail have come around, while reporters are emboldened, knowing they don't have a choice, Rome says.

In more than five months since the ban was enacted, Rome says he could not think of a story that had been spiked for lack of an in-person or phone comment.

Editors have been providing reporters with additional training about interviewing methods, he says. The prohibition, Rome says, has been an excellent teaching lesson.

But even Rome acknowledges the idea of never using e-mail to conduct interviews has become, well, academic. "I'm not sure it's possible to scale something like this up outside of the university, with all the competition to get something first and if you don't get it somebody else will," he says. "I certainly understand it might not work."

Not possible, nor particularly desirable. There are still isolated pockets of concern that e-mail interviews are inexorably supplanting the more venerated forms and that something vital is being lost. Everywhere else that reporters and sources do the daily pas de deux, e-mail is a tool, in the box alongside the sit-down and the phoner, convenient, quick, precise and very often essential.

"I abhor e-mail interviews," Ryan Gabrielson says. Gabrielson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for California Watch, a nonprofit investigative Web site founded by the Center for Investigative Reporting. His 18-month examination of the handling of crimes against the developmentally disabled recently won a George Polk Award.

Knocking on doors and looking somebody in the eye, Gabrielson says, works as well as it ever has. Gabrielson believes in the old interview hierarchy: face-to-face whenever possible, the phone when you can't do that and e-mail when all else fails.

As it became apparent to them what he was doing, the California State Police and the state Department of Developmental Services tried their best to make sure that all else failed for Gabrielson.

"The only circumstances I used e-mail was when a state agency absolutely wouldn't talk to me and there wasn't any other way," Gabrielson says. "I felt duty bound to get comment from them, even if it was a formal statement and then link to the document."

When the first stories of the Polk-winning series, "Broken Shield," started appearing, the reporting dam broke loose, pouring out sources. Those prepared e-mail statements, still necessary, were less and less important, Gabrielson says.

Reporting without e-mail isn't realistic today, particularly for beat reporters at any level whose deadlines have become more frequent and cluttered, Gabrielson says. Still, he believes the use of e-mail gives an advantage to the public institutions that ought to be more open and honest with the public.

"It's a tool that's growing, and it's something we should always push back against," Gabrielson says.

Andy Welch thinks Gabrielson's concerns are justified. Welch retired almost two years ago after a career as a public information officer, the last 12 years for the Austin Independent School District in Texas.

A Capitol reporter for eight years before taking a state job, Welch subscribed to the idea that the press was an intermediary for the public. His job, as he saw it, was to be an intermediary, too.

The first superintendent Welch represented, Pat Forgione, did his own interviews in his office. He gave his cell phone number to reporters he trusted and returned calls, sometimes after midnight, Welch says.

On her first official day at work, Meria Carstarphen, the current superintendent, had Welch arrange for her to appear at one of the elementary schools to meet students and staff. After some gripping and grinning, Welch led her to a room where reporters were waiting. "She looked at me like, 'What the fuck is this,' and that was Day One," Welch says.

Carstarphen rarely granted interviews and, when she did, she wanted them scripted, with questions from the reporter supplied in advance, Welch says. Beat reporters covering the school district had little choice but to comply.

"I think with a lot of stories, if you took the e-mail content out of the equation, you'd lose as much as 75 percent of the story," Welch says. "Worse was so much of this was done on deadline that when you didn't want to answer the e-mails, when you so tightly control the message, you miss the damn deadline. Our comment wouldn't be in the story. And that didn't bother Carstarphen one bit."

Welch sees in his two former bosses a fundamental change in thinking about the role of the press.

"Forgione was old-school. He knew the press wasn't always going to be kind to him, but he believed it had a role to play," he says. "Carstarphen comes from the era of tweets and blogs to get out her message. She might not be saying [the media] have no role to play, but she's at least saying she doesn't think they have a critical role to play."

Some of this perception of lost authority is rooted in the depletion of newspaper and television news reporting staffs. At the same time, public and private institutions have built deep and experienced rosters of people who are public information officers in title only.

In addition to her own three-person media relations team, Carstarphen a year ago used $192,000 in federal funds to create a Department of Public Relations and Multicultural Outreach staffed by a public relations coordinator, two multicultural outreach coordinators and a language support coordinator.

Part of the written job description for the new department is "correcting inaccuracies advanced by the media." In other words, creating a narrative separate from the one created for you by the media.

Carstarphen declined an offer of a phone interview because it would have occurred during the district's spring break, Christian Clarke Casarez, her assistant director of public relations, said via e-mail.

Casarez says the superintendent does not require e-mail questions in advance of an interview and tries when she can to do interviews in person. "Certainly, e-mail can be helpful when interviews cannot be scheduled due to other district commitments or to address follow-up questions after an interview," Casarez wrote. "But, the district works hard to schedule interviews with the superintendent (and other leaders, experts and program coordinators) amid district commitments in order to provide information and perspective for journalists' stories on the district or educational issues."

Del Quentin Wilber, on book leave from his job as a federal courts reporter with the Washington Post, says he has the sense that the desire for message control at the U.S. Justice Department has been increasing, although he isn't exactly sure why now.

Wilber, the best-selling author of "Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan," says he wins most of his battles to get his quotes in person or on the phone. He isn't sure, however, that some of the youngest reporters on the news-paper are as committed to getting out of the office.

Allowing the people you cover to e-mail helps sources tip the balance, Wilber says. "People have always wanted to control the message. I think this is partly generational, but I think millennials rely too much on e-mail. We've abdicated too much."

Working in hyper-political Washington, D.C., Wilber says he fully understands why government officials don't do an interview without a couple of handlers flanking them. No one wants to make a gaffe that will go viral on the Internet.

Bureaucrats today go well beyond caution, creating structures designed, whenever possible, to cut reporters out of the communications chain. "In the old days, they needed us. We helped them get out their messages," Wilber says. "Now they own a part of that sphere."

The Milwaukee Police Department took ownership last spring when it hired high-powered advertising and public relations company Cramer-Krasselt to create its own Web site.

Police Chief Ed Flynn explained the primary purpose of the site in a blog post to the citizens of Milwaukee. The Web site would be a running narrative of the Milwaukee Police Department by the Milwaukee Police Department, a story "television, radio and newspapers don't have space or time to provide their audiences."

Television, radio and newspapers would be part of the narrative, to be praised when they produced stories that fit the narrative and to be corrected, Flynn wrote, when they got it wrong.

The gatekeeper for the narrative was Anne E. Schwartz, a former reporter and the first civilian ever hired to act as public information officer by the Milwaukee Police Department. When reporters produced work that deviated from the script, Schwartz would cut off all access to Flynn, Gina Barton says.

Barton is a law enforcement investigative reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and a member of its Watchdog team. Barton's battle for records and reporting on the death of a man in police custody recently earned her a George Polk Award.

Reporting on police officers accused of violating the law very naturally got Barton blacklisted by Schwartz and Flynn.

"I think they felt like, 'we set up this Web site,' they didn't need me anymore," Barton says. "They wouldn't take my calls. I had to e-mail [Schwartz]. They even set up a news e-mailbox that provided even less access. I wouldn't do it. I continued to e-mail the chief and copy his chief of staff."

(Schwartz, whose contract was not renewed by the Milwaukee Police Department, declined to answer questions about the performance of her duties with the department. "I respect completely the difficult task the media has doing its job, especially in the digital age," Schwartz said in a phone response to an e-mail inquiry. "However, that part of my career is in the past and I am focused on the future.")

In the wake of Barton's police custody reporting, word circulated that Flynn intended to announce reforms in police procedure. But Flynn had no intention of talking to Barton about them, she says.

Barton went to a Fire and Police Commission meeting armed with questions. She made sure to find Flynn in a group of people who could act as witnesses and confronted him.

Barton uses the term "ambush" to describe the episode. But she got her answers, and she detailed how she got them in her story. She didn't necessarily want to do it that way, but she would do it again if she had to.

"One of the very basic tenets of beat reporting is that the public relations person isn't the one you want to be talking to anyway," Barton says. "You still work your sources; you find ways around the bosses."

The department and the public might not acknowledge it, but Barton says she sees herself as more than an intermediary. "I see myself as a watchdog," she says. "I don't think the public knows or cares that the job can be tough. They should know that I'm doing it for the public."

Good public information officers have an equal commitment to serving the public, a commitment sometimes underestimated by reporters, Lt. Don Kelly says. Kelly is a past president of the National Information Officers Association and a former reporter who since 1988 has served as spokesman for the Baton Rouge Police Department.

Kelly considers himself an advocate for the press within his department and understands the job it does. Still, by policy, he is the instrument through which information flows. The department restricts access to many of its officers and command staff.

Reporters, he says, have no inherent right to a statement from him. He reserves the right to ask for questions in writing and provide answers in writing, usually through e-mail.

Departments like his are trying harder to control the message, not because they are deceptive and evil, but because relationships with the media have changed, Kelly says.

In Baton Rouge, there are fewer reporters who cover the police beat full time, fewer who have the experience to understand what police officers do, he says. When Kelly started, the old police reporter used to bring the new police reporter in to meet and get to know him.

Kelly recently met the new police reporter for the first time at a homicide scene. The reporter had been on the job for two months. "Maybe I'm nostalgic, but I always thought there was nothing more important than for the beat reporter to come around, to get to know him," Kelly says. "But there seems to be more turnover, so that by the time the reporter gets to know what he's doing, he's gone."

At the same time, this ever more faceless reporting tribe is expected to file stories, particularly crime and mayhem, all day long. The calls for answers to questions, some of them very detailed, have multiplied. Kelly uses e-mail for speed and accuracy, but he doesn't require questions in writing.

"I think everybody has gotten much more comfortable with all forms of electronic communication," Kelly says. "But I think sometimes we're missing something. I still like to answer questions face to face."

Sometimes public information officers use e-mail for self-defense. Like many veteran public affairs officers, David Umansky began his professional career in journalism, as a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The spokesman for the Office of the Chief Financial Officer in Washington, D.C., still considers himself a staunch newspaper guy.

Never in his more than 40 years in the public information business, however, has the press in D.C. been more dominated by reporters and columnists whose opinions were more important to them than gathering facts, Umansky says.

Getting questions in writing, Umansky says, is not only a way to form more complete and accurate answers, but to be better able to parry inquiries designed to elicit specific responses.

What Umansky describes is a kind of journalistic cage match in a town that gives the thumbs down to the combatant who missteps. "Gone are the days of generally professional disagreements between flacks and reporters," Umansky says. "The press was never totally detached or objective, but there seems to be much more opinion, more subjectivity, more negative words in the news pages these days."

The view from outside that traditional media war zone is considerably different from that of the professionals in the new media. The notion that Web sites are fortresses and e-mail a kind of Maginot Line comes off as absurd and irrelevant.

Brad Phillips' book, "The Media Training Bible," includes no "us versus them" imagery, no strategies to evade and elide. E-mail is a tool that ought to be helpful to reporter and source.

Phillips, a former producer for CNN who founded Phillips Media Relations in New York in 2004, says many of his clients come to him petrified of the press or feeling that at one time or another they have been burned.

He likes to use as a reminder of the importance of his work the lengthy interview Tony Hayward, the head of British Petroleum, granted after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the sound bite the press pistol-whipped him with: "I'd like my life back."

Some public relations firms, the minority of them, in Phillips' view, teach clients to answer the question they want to answer, to avoid the question they'd rather not tackle. Phillips says he teaches clients to answer the question that was asked. For him, e-mail is a tool of clarity and precision.

"I'm not nave enough to pretend that the relationship between the press and sources isn't sometimes adversarial," Phillips says. "I think that if a client doesn't come to that relationship with satisfactory answers to questions, he is going to get killed by the press. But if I'm doing my job, I'm arming them with the confidence to answer even the most challenging questions without compromising their brand."

Nowhere has e-mail changed the relationship between the press and sources more than with the Web site Help a Reporter Out. Three times a day during business hours, the Web site posts offerings from experts in a variety of areas hoping to get the attention of reporters.

The initial connection is made by e-mail. Most often the interview is done by e-mail. Help a Reporter Out is both a product of and the beneficiary of the change in attitudes about using electronic tools.

I know these things because they were answers to questions I was asked to provide to Laura Spaventa, the site's social media manager. I didn't press to do a phone interview because it seemed so natural to do it the Help a Reporter Out way.

"Over the years, I have noticed that reporters are becoming more comfortable with email interviewing," Spaventa wrote. "When I first started at HARO in 2009, only a small fraction of reporters felt comfortable conducting email interviews many of the reporters I worked with insisted on conducting interviews via phone. However, the tide has definitely shifted."

The primary reason for the shift, Spaventa ventures, is that reporters are being asked to produce more, with less and less time between deadlines.

E-mail has changed the relationship between sources and reporters, but Spaventa sees advantages for both parties, sources in having better control of their answers and reporters in getting better material for their stories.

And, not surprisingly, given her site's business model, Spaventa believes readers are the beneficiaries of better and more complete content.

While debate over e-mail completes its second decade, reporters are contending with a growing lineup of social media, blogging and podcasting and competing with citizen journalists, news aggregators and online video producers.

Mark Glaser, the executive editor, and a small staff and correspondents have been tracking all of these changes on the PBS Web site MediaShift, which is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

To effectively tell that story, Glaser says he makes liberal use of all the tools available to him. While he is sympathetic to the principle, e-mail bans by campus newspapers are a kind of turning away from reality, he says.

Still, there are times when a correspondent turns in a story to Glaser with quotes that seem too perfect, too formal, too stilted.

"You'll go back to the writers and they'll say they e-mailed their source. I always ask, 'Did you call them?'" Glaser says. "Some things haven't changed. Being there in person is still the best and if you can't, call."

AJR senior contributing writer Mark Lisheron (mark@texaswatchdog.org) wrote about Minneapolis' Star Tribune in AJR's Fall 2012 issue.

###