Are Email Interviews That Bad? Yes.

Email me your questions and I’ll get back to you.

It’s the journalistic equivalent of “your source is just not that into you.”

It’s no secret that politicians, big shot business execs, or even the PTO presidents running a car wash fundraiser don’t want to sound silly in print. We all know that the current trend of quote approval is a slippery slope to selling out. But is conducting an email interview the same thing?

Poynter reported this week that many universities are  banning email interviews for campus newspapers. The rationale is that email interviews allow for implicit quote approval – the interviewee has full control of their answer, polishing their responses – and that the email format inhibits the search for truth, best found in face-to-face interviews, or at least over the phone.

It’s nice that universities are banning email interviews; it puts the value back into the act of journalism, something that’s nice to instill in journalism students. It also seems like they were finally fed up with their own universities’ public relations staff — something I can relate to. Have you ever tried to get an interview with a university president about their endowment? They’re worse than actual politicians.

I, however, am torn, because I have used email interviews to compose a story and I admit: I sort of liked it. 

When an Email Interview Works

While working on non-breaking features, I have let the interviewee opt for an email interview. Sometimes, it was sort of win-win. They were able to answer without pressure. I didn’t have to update my iCal again. After six emails to schedule and re-schedule calls, eventually I gave in and sent some questions in the name of moving the process along. Or maybe I fell for a sophisticated ploy directed by the public relations team. Some of the answers were stilted and obviously cut and pasted or adapted from press materials I already had.

But I also found some gems in the well thought out responses. And it was easy to follow up, since we both had the references laid out in front of us. I think it took some of the stress out of the whole thing for this particular contact. We forget that we can make people nervous.

When Email Interviews Don’t Work

Apart from the noble idea that in-person, or telephone, interviews let journalists get at the Truth, sometimes the people you want to interview are not that eloquent in writing. That’s why we get paid the big bucks to write for a living. While I mentioned that an email interview was a time saver in terms of getting in touch before my deadline, sometimes it has set me back days. On the phone, you can pull thoughts out of people. If they stumble or seem unsure, you are able to get them to repeat, dig deeper, digress. When the questions are set in writing, that’s not the case, and you run the risk of the one sentence answer. Or worse, a one sentence answer that doesn’t really have anything to do with the question.

It was in these instances that I felt a little dirty. Not only had I implicitly sanctioned issue skirting, I didn’t even have a quote for my story. What had been done in the name of simplicity created more work for me, having to go back and just do the right thing: call until it felt like I was stalking the guy and press him for his thoughts.

The other reason email interviews are a bad idea is that it messes with the creative process and transformation of a good story. When I sent out questions, I had an idea of where I wanted to go with the story, and was given the materials (I know. I told you I felt dirty, right?) to do so. But when you have a conversation with someone in person and foster that relationship, the narrative could change. Other things come up. We all know this. That’s the fun part of truth-telling.