Working under a tight deadline this summer, Elizabeth Weise needed to reach a regular source who constantly travels. "So there is no point contacting his office because I know he won't be there," says Weise, then national Internet writer for the Associated Press. Via e-mail, she relayed her questions, later including his comments in the article. But e-mail interviews, says Weise, are generally a last resort.
"As somebody whose beat is the Net, I still think you get better interviews on the phone, and the best interviews are in person," says Weise, now a technology reporter for USA Today's Life section. "When you want stories, you want people to be talking to you. People online are terse. People in real life are storytellers."
Online communication is bubbling. Nearly 500 American dailies publish editions on the Web. Each day, journalists forward as many as 80 source requests to the information service ProfNet Inc. — three-fourths of them by e-mail. But the uses, and dilemmas, of the newest communication tool are still emerging.
Take, for instance, this fall's subpoena of the Ventura County Star. The subpoena's target? Unpublished e-mails that readers sent to the California newspaper's Web site, commenting on a sensational local murder trial. The site, argued the defendant's attorney, substantially boosted local exposure to the case.
Online journalism doesn't alter professional ethics, but it can create new situations, says Staci D. Kramer, an at-large director of the Society of Professional Journalists. As chair of SPJ's online journalism task force, Kramer regularly fields questions. "They want to know how to behave online as a reporter and how to treat the information they get online," she says.
So far, most dilemmas are handled informally, she says, with reporters turning to nearby colleagues for advice. "It's not being dealt with in the way it could be in newsrooms," says Kramer, who recommends larger, roundtable discussions. "That doesn't mean it's not being talked about."
In many ways, e-mail has pulled the world's string of sources a little closer. Reporters receive story tips and press releases via e-mail. A vacationing source can be quickly located across time zones. Many reporters turn to their cyber-mailbox to double-check facts, and to schedule or conduct interviews. "Sometimes," says Wired magazine Managing Editor Peter Leyden, "you get much more immediate answers and much more direct, more thoughtful answers." Some sources, such as academics, find the written interview particularly attractive, says ProfNet President Dan Forbush. "They like their ability to have a record of the conversation. I think they feel a greater sense of control when they deal with a reporter via e-mail."
But the recurring sentiment in more than a dozen interviews with reporters, editors and journalism professors is that what's good for the source can trip up savvy journalism. Verification, they say, becomes a major concern, especially if the potential source is first identified online. At the Chicago Tribune, a source must be reached by telephone before e-mail comments are printed, says Howard Witt, associate managing editor for interactive news, "because it's so easy to falsify identities through e-mail."
And the new medium, say others, can screen out telling details that add up to good journalism, whether a stumble in conversation or a particularly loud tie. "How do you discern between my absolute passionate outrage and just being pissed off?" asks Steve Geimann, SPJ's immediate past president and senior editor at Communications Daily, who collects "nuggets of information" via e-mail, but avoids online interviews.
E-mail also provides sources "too much time to develop a pat answer," says Gerald Posner, author of six books, including "Citizen Perot." Posner saves his e-mail for initial contacts and fact-checking. When he begins to lob uncomfortable questions, he avoids the computer's inherent distance. "I think you almost have the obligation to bite the bullet on those things and ask them directly."
Reporters using e-mail should remember that a record of the exchange may lurk after it's been deleted from view, says Harold W. Fuson Jr., chief legal officer of Copley Newspapers. "The e-mail interview is the tail of the dog here," he says, stressing that the computer's memory records all key strokes. But unlike a phone call, he says, an e-mail records the text of a conversation, plus the time and route, leaving "a really huge trail that really skilled people can follow if they are willing to spend the money and the time to do it."
Concerns about verification certainly aren't confined to e-mail. In the online world, news groups present some of the greatest pitfalls, Weise says. "You see reporters picking up these stray quotes. That's like saying, 'A stray comment I overheard at the bus stop.' " Even when participants attach their full name to comments, Weise calls to confirm both identity and their willingness to be quoted in the mainstream press.
"There is a certain comfort people have with things that they can see," says Kramer. "They can say they saw it. They read it. It was there." So she expects the questions to multiply as more journalists add the reporting tool. "I didn't wake up one day feeling very sure how to do this," she says. "I still think it can be great for interviews, but as long as you use it, and don't let it use you."