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From AJR,   December/January 2006  issue

Inbox Journalism   

The e-mail interview has become an increasingly popular technique. It eliminates endless rounds of phone tag, and it gives sources a chance to provide well-thought-out answers rather than top-of-the-head responses. But critics warn that it’s hardly a substitute for real-time conversation and may be a recipe for sterile journalism.


By Kim Hart
Hart is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

One spring afternoon in 1996, then-Seattle Times reporter Deborah Nelson's phone rang. The anonymous caller told her that an Indian tribal official had built a castle-like home for herself and her husband, using federal money earmarked to build reservation houses for low-income American Indians.

Nelson took a drive to the construction site to see the 5,300-square-foot structure, one of 18 lavish homes built on the Tulalip reservation with $2.5 million in tax money — all of which should have been spent to build affordable houses for tribal members living in deplorable poverty.

Seeing the potential for a national story about corruption in the Indian housing program, Nelson immediately submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the relevant records from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The records included a number of e-mail exchanges between the Seattle HUD staff and the Washington, D.C., headquarters.

The top official involved was obviously comfortable communicating by e-mail, so Nelson kept in touch with him electronically after their first interview. "He was very busy and difficult to catch by phone," she says, "so the e-mails allowed us to maintain a running dialogue. When I wanted a database of HUD grants to tribes, I didn't have to wait years for a FOIA response; he had it e-mailed to me as an attachment."

The resulting five-day series cataloguing the mismanagement of the federal program won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting and launched an internal HUD investigation. Nelson, who coauthored the series and is now the investigations editor at the Los Angeles Times' Washington, D.C., bureau, says it "was stronger because of the access e-mail gave us to people and information."

When Nelson's investigative team broke this story at the end of 1996, e-mail was still in its early stages of use in the newsroom. Now, nearly a decade later, the Internet's new frontier is old hat to many reporters, who rely on e-mail more and more to gather information for a wide range of stories, from routine news reports to in-depth takeouts.

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.

The e-mail debate has heated up in recent years as journalists increasingly embrace the technology as an indispensable reporting tool. It's a battle between the new generation of reporters who grew up in front of a computer and the newsroom traditionalists who maintain that live conversations, either face-to-face or by phone, are far superior to cyberspace communication.

The tendency of e-mail to promote lazy reporting and the use of unreliable sources is one of the biggest concerns for some editors. "It can be dangerous," says Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors. "You've got to be absolutely certain of who you're talking to, especially if you can't see them, especially if you've never met them before." Steve Buttry, the American Press Institute's director of tailored programs, agrees that e-mail has its downsides, but so, he says, does the telephone. He adds, "I don't see e-mail as inherently worse or better than the phone... I don't think e-mail in and of itself will water down journalism."

Last year, Washington Post reporter Ylan Mui was looking for a New Year's Eve story idea. She turned to the Internet, where she noticed a plethora of personal ads airing the last-minute scramble for New Year's dates, and she used the e-mail addresses listed in the ads to contact her sources for the story. Although she conducted the main interviews over the phone, she checked in with her primary source via e-mail over several days.

"He was so much more quotable in an e-mail than he was in the interview that I just used his e-mails" in the story, says Mui, who covers education for the Post's Howard County, Maryland, bureau. "Some people are better with the written word than with the spoken word." While she prefers to conduct in-person or telephone interviews for most of her stories, she doesn't "have any qualms about using e-mail."

Like Mui, many journalists acknowledge that nothing should replace the in-person interview, but they are quick to take advantage of the convenience afforded by e-mail. In some newsrooms, it's begun to intrude on the telephone's role in keeping in touch with sources. Reporters argue that electronic communication is quick, easy and accessible — and it offers luxuries that other forms of contact cannot.

For example, says Daniel Golden of the Wall Street Journal, e-mail interviews provide a written record of the conversation, "so there's no real room for being accused of misquoting." Golden used e-mail to communicate with a few sources for his extensive 2003 series on admission preferences at American universities, which won a Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting.

In-person and telephone interviews may offer better chances for more spontaneous and frank remarks from a source, "but then it's your notes against their word," he says. "An e-mail is like having the transcript of a court case. They can't really say you got the quote wrong."

E-mail can also break down barriers created by language and distance. API's Buttry recalls several instances in which communication with sources would have been impossible without e-mail. As a national correspondent for the Omaha World-Herald, Buttry was covering the cleanup of a smelting plant that had caused lead poisoning. A crucial source for the story, a scientist who had done the most extensive research on the poisoning of Omaha children, was hearing impaired.

"If it wasn't for e-mail, I wouldn't have been able to communicate with her very well," he says. And because she was used to expressing herself in writing, "her personality did come through in the e-mail." Buttry has used e-mail to interview people in Afghanistan, and he knows of other reporters who have done the same with soldiers in Iraq.

Improved access to public officials is another benefit of using e-mail to approach overscheduled sources. "If you call them and they're busy, you're screwed. But even if they're busy they can be looking at their e-mail," Golden says.

In fact, many public officials actually prefer to be contacted via e-mail rather than a phone call because they find it more convenient, according to the L.A. Times' Nelson. "You're lucky to get 20 minutes talking to them, but when you send an e-mail, they read it and respond when they have time, and they don't have to wait for their secretary to clear an hour or two" on the schedule, she says. She estimates that about half of her communication with sources takes place in cyberspace.

Some sources believe e-mail can make for more precise reporting. "From the corporation's point of view, e-mailed answers increase the likelihood that the company will be quoted accurately," the Poynter Institute's Butch Ward, a former vice president for corporate communications of an insurance company, wrote in an e-mail interview. Such interviews, the former Philadelphia Inquirer managing editor wrote, give sources the chance to gather more accurate information and collect their thoughts rather than giving an immediate knee-jerk response that may be off the mark.

But the trend toward checking inboxes instead of walking the streets or dialing phone numbers is alarming to some professionals, especially teachers and writing coaches who fear younger journalists have become too e-mail dependent.

Conducting e-mail interviews is "madness" to Melvin Mencher, a veteran newspaper reporter who taught at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism for 30 years and wrote a widely used reporting textbook. "It's frightening how many people would rather sit in front of a computer screen instead of getting out and enjoying humanity... It's part of a trend that separates the reporter from the reality of the life we're supposed to be examining."

Even in a phone interview, he says, "you can still get a sense of the person's voice, their personality," and you can hear their pauses, chuckles and reactions. E-mail, though, is just a collection of stale, lifeless words without context.

Mike Foley, a former executive editor of the St. Petersburg Times who now teaches at the University of Florida's College of Journalism and Mass Communications, says he is constantly fighting students on the e-mail issue. When they rely too heavily on e-mails in their assignments, "I jump up and down and scream at them not to use it," he says.

To Foley, dependence on e-mail is the ultimate sign of laziness. "There's something to be said for the old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting. E-mail requires no shoe leather... It's easy, like quoting from a press release, and then your stories are sterile and boring, neither of which compels me to read them."

Unreliability is the drawback that he most fervently drives home to his students. "You don't know who you're talking to," he says. "It could be the CEO, the public relations VP, the secretary, a clerk — it could be the janitor who just happened to be in there cleaning up."

Which leaves plenty of opportunity to fall for a hoax. Journalists too quick to believe what they read in an e-mail could get caught in an embarrassing situation. In 2003, a reporter for Computerworld's Web site wrote a story about cyberterrorism based on an e-mail tip. It later turned out that the e-mail was sent by a journalist posing as a terrorist who claimed that his group had unleashed a virus through the Internet, which was completely false. In 1999, a Canadian newspaper falsely reported that an e-mail rumor of a government-imposed tax on sending e-mails was true.

But reporters can be duped in person or by phone just as easily. API's Buttry remembers writing an obituary for a man who was still alive. "The guy called it in himself..the very worst mistake of my career," he recalls.

Investigative reporters should be especially careful when using the Internet to contact anonymous sources, says IRE's Brant Houston. That need for caution was illustrated when Time magazine handed over to a special prosecutor the electronic notes and e-mails of White House correspondent Matthew Cooper in the Valerie Plame case (see "Uncharted Terrain," October/November). "As Time magazine and Cooper have shown, e-mail is quite a double-edged sword," he says, and details that could identify sources — including e-mail addresses — are best kept off the information superhighway. In the early days of e-mail, a source once sent Houston encrypted messages through e-mail and snail-mailed the passwords to access them, which he sees as a safer way to exchange information.

"With e-mail," says Houston, "you're just laying a paper trail of what's supposed to be an anonymous source and an anonymous relationship."

As e-mail interviewing becomes more prevalent, editors are still unsure of how to regulate its use. Should they establish a policy limiting the number of e-mail interviews reporters use in their stories? And if a reporter quotes from an e-mail, should that be disclosed to readers?

"If it is from an e-mail, we have to say so," and the reporter must talk to the source to verify that he or she is the author of the e-mail, Adell Crowe, standards and development editor at USA Today, said in an e-mail. "There is no limit on e-mails in a story, but because we have to identify communication by e-mail as such, one doesn't want to do it too often." That could hurt credibility, she said. "If there are repeated e-mail references, then we had better be sure we explain to the reader why we can't reach this person."

The San Jose Mercury News does not have hard rules about how frequently reporters can use e-mail interviews, according to Managing Editor David Satterfield. But if quotes are obtained in any way other than face-to-face or telephone interviews, the writer should spell that out.

Jeannine Guttman, editor of Maine's Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, sees a need for more discussion of the issue. She has noticed a definite surge in e-mail use among reporters at the paper. She, too, is concerned about the credibility of the sources and tells her reporters to be absolutely sure of their identities.

Professional associations, including API, IRE and Poynter, don't frequently address the e-mail question in seminars and workshops. Poynter's Web site offers articles with tips on conducting e-mail interviews, and IRE intends to blend the topic into its Internet workshops more often. But Nelson thinks a broader discussion of the issue is in order. "I guess we could all lament that we don't do everything in person anymore," she says. "But the world changes, and we need to change with it."

While some editors remain suspicious when the words "said in an e-mail" appear in copy, many reporters are convinced that e-mail interviews have become a fixture in the profession. Editors, they hope, will become less skittish over time about inbox journalism.

Amy Gahran, a freelance journalist and online media consultant who has taught courses for Poynter's News University, says she finds it frustrating that journalists are "extremely technophobic... They're great at finding new angles on their beat, but when it comes to finding new ways to do their job, they're surprisingly reluctant."

She thinks the main reason reporters don't use e-mail more than they already do is to avoid a "battle with editors." But just as journalists warmed up to the idea of using the telephone to interview sources almost a century ago, Gahran predicts that the next generation of reporters and editors "won't think twice about it."

For devotees of instant messaging, traditional e-mail is so 15 minutes ago. While America Online and MSN instant messaging programs have been used for personal communication — especially among teenagers — for several years, journalists have only recently discovered it as a helpful tactic.

Paul Conley, whose career has included stints at the Winston-Salem Journal, CNN and Bloomberg, has used instant messaging, or IM, on a daily basis to reach sources for stories.

"It's become more popular than the e-mail system," says Conley, who until recently worked as an editor and reporter for a trade newsletter publisher — Oil Price Information Services — and spent about 12 hours a day on Yahoo Messenger. When he started to cover the oil industry, he began to communicate with his sources almost exclusively through IM because they prefer it. "The only way to cover this market-based reporting is through IM. If you try to do this on the phone or by e-mail, you've excluded yourself from the conversation. That is the way to reach them as a reporter; this is the language they speak."

Gahran says she always asks key sources if they use instant messenger. IM is more immediate and conversational than e-mail, allowing more "give and take" in the process. "Sometimes I'll be getting ready to file a story, and an IM will pop up telling me that legislation just passed or something else happened that is crucial to my story," she says. "I couldn't conceive being a reporter without the Internet and e-mail, and IM is just one more tool."

According to Conley, IM's strength lies in its quick and informal nature; he likens it to a casual phone call. "People tend to use it at first as a chatting environment," he says. "So people tend to live in that informal world and don't think of you as a reporter. They think of you as one more person on their buddy list..and you can get closer to your sources."

Mui of the Washington Post uses instant messaging to keep in touch with students in the school district she covers. "Just in the course of a conversation I came up with different story ideas," she says. "It helps because it's so much more casual that you can pick up on things without having to do a full-blown interview."

But the relaxed attitude of IM conversations makes them difficult to quote. "People sometimes don't realize they're on the record," Conley says. "I have to remind people that I'm a reporter in order to get a usable quote, to overcome the bad spelling and the willful ignorance of grammar."

Even the most vociferous supporters of electronic communication, whether e-mail or IM, agree that it's not as valuable as in-person, or even telephone, interviews. No matter how quick and efficient it may be, e-mail cannot capture the sense of place, tone of voice, body language, unexpected reactions or off-the-cuff remarks that live conversations can.

"I'd go as far as to say that an e-mail is not an interview at all," says John Sawatsky, a well-known Canadian investigative reporter and interview expert (see "The Question Man," October 2000). An interview consists of two parts: discovery and scrutiny. "There has to be scrutiny in an interview, and e-mail doesn't lend itself to that."

The lag that accompanies e-mail gives interviewees too much control over the situation, since they have more time to prepare spin or look for exit routes to questions, he adds. "If you just want to get a response, you can shoot it out there and wait for it to come back," says Sawatsky, who is now director of talent development at ESPN. "But just getting a response is not an interview... That will never be at the heart of journalism."

E-mail interviews and in-person conversations are "leagues apart," says Mencher, now a professor emeritus at Columbia. "An e-mail interview can't be made into an interesting story... You don't know if he's thickset or thin as a rail. You don't get the intimacy." But, he adds, "I don't damn all e-mail interviews."

Golden of the Wall Street Journal says e-mail is a great way to set up an interview, but the conversation should then be continued on the phone if possible. Even for contacting sources overseas, says IRE's Houston, "I still think phone rates have come down enough that it's worth having at least a partial phone interview."

With in-person, telephone and e-mail interviews alike, inherent skepticism is always critical, he says. Teaching good habits of verification is just as important as how the interview is conducted. "I think being savvy comes down to being savvy in all media."

"It's only one tool," says Portland's Guttman, who unabashedly admits to her old-fashioned preferences. "But, as the saying goes, if all you have in your toolbox is a hammer, then everything starts to look like a nail. Get out of the office. Be a journalist instead of a stenographer."