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From AJR,   February/March 2007  issue

Full Disclosure   


By Hallie C. Falquet
Falquet is an AJR editorial assistant.     

Does the reader need to know if an interview happened via e-mail?

Not all that long ago, in-person and over-the-phone interviews were standard journalistic procedure. But e-mail interviews are becoming commonplace. Sometimes at the behest of sources who are more accessible online than they are by phone, and sometimes because it's simply easier, journalists are becoming ever more reliant on their in-boxes to obtain quotes (see "Inbox Journalism," December 2005/January 2006). Is it necessary to disclose that's how the interview was conducted?

Eamonn O'Neill, Scotland-based freelance journalist: O'Neill is among the first in the LexisNexis database to specify that an interview took place via e-mail. In a story that ran in the Scotsman on January 14, 1996, he referenced comments made in "an email interview from Washington." The story was about U.S. politicians campaigning through Internet sites, and "I didn't want to give the impression I was sitting in America interviewing this guy," O'Neill says. Speaking to AJR from his home in Scotland, he adds, it also was "just a cool thing to do."

Andy Van De Voorde, executive associate editor, Village Voice Media: Van De Voorde is adamantly opposed to e-mail interviews. He says they are too often the result of "lazy journalism." But if reporters do use the technique, he says, they "absolutely must make the distinction" in their articles. "The more information you can give to the reader the better," he says. "You don't want to mislead them and make it seem like you have more access than you do."

Patrick Healy, political correspondent, New York Times: E-mail "is a tool for newsgathering... It can help facilitate the reporting," Healy says. "Sometimes, when you're dealing with campaign consultants, they're getting on a plane or are out of a service area," in which case they'll ask him to send questions by e-mail, and, ideally, he will follow up by phone. If, however, the interview took place by e-mail, Healy makes sure the reader knows. It "is germane," he says, "to people understanding how scripted the candidate might be."

Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar, the Poynter Institute: "No one should pass off an e-mail interview answer as if it were spoken," says Clark, who believes e-mail interviews make sense for certain kinds of stories but sees an unfortunate tendency by reporters to rely too heavily on the electronic medium. "With the opportunities afforded by new media, and shrinking staffs, in a way we've sort of chained reporters to their telephones and their computers," says Clark, who laments the loss of traditional "shoe-leather" reporting.

Alan Miller, managing editor for news, Columbus Dispatch: E-mail interviews are not as reliable as interviews conducted in person or over the phone, Miller says, because there's always the possibility that someone else wrote the e-mail. But if there's no other option, he says, "It's important to say when that information is obtained another way, such as e-mail or in a statement, so it's clear to the reader that the reporter didn't talk to the source."

Ann Cooper, broadcast director, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism: Astute readers notice the less conversational tone of an e-mail quote, Cooper says. "There are times when I read a quote," she says, "[and] I think that perhaps that was an e-mail response. It's a little too polished."

Todd Everett, freelance entertainment writer: Everett says pointing out that an interview was conducted by e-mail "gets in the way." But, he concedes, "People have a right to know. Whether they have an interest [in knowing] is, of course, something else entirely."

--Hallie C. Falquet