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Panpa Bulletin : February 2006
When it comes to the journalistic interview, nothing beats wearing out the old shoe leather and sit- ting down to eyeball your inter- view subject. But we would never produce the 'daily miracle' if all our interviews were conducted face-to-face. Each wave of technology has offered faster and cheaper ways of gathering news, yet each presents its own difficulties. Even the tel- ephone, for decades the most common interviewing tool of the newspaper reporter, had its own shortcomings and required new techniques. For example, with the total fo- cus on the participants' voices, silences are exaggerated so inter- viewees become impatient with pauses for note-taking or ponder- ing the next question. The report- er's sensory capacity is reduced to hearing alone, with the sacrifice of the other four senses, particu- larly useful for colour writing. The journalist might detect a quaver in the interviewee's voice, but will fail to note the firmness of the handshake, the sweaty palm, the waft of Brut aftershave and the bittersweet taste of condensed milk in instant coffee. Email interviews are now quite common, but have we consid- ered carefully enough their pros and cons? I put this question to the Com- monwealth Press Union's elec- tronic discussion list, SNIE, and colleagues offered some useful insights. Email interviews are an essen- tial tool for Juanita Brock, who publishes electronic titles in the South Atlantic Remote Territories. She said the isolation of her con- tacts makes email communica- tion ideal. (Which raises another issue. You see, she didn't actu- ally "say" that. She "wrote" it in an email to a discussion list. Should we distinguish this for our read- ers, or is this being pedantic?) She also wrote that email ensured the accuracy of her interview notes. The email text is solid proof she quoted her source accurately. Carmel Bonello from the In- stitute of Maltese Journalists suggested email interviews were more effective for reaching busy senior executives. "We find that these interviews make the busi- ness sections even more interest- ing," he wrote. "Also, in this age of international communication, email interviews provide accessi- bility to top foreign executives in other countries." However, there is the danger the executive has not answered in person. Perhaps a spin doctor has crafted the response. Former Waikato Times edi- tor Venetia Sherson said she was happy to accept email interviews as a last resort. "I much preferred the spontaneity of face-to-face contact or 'phoners'," she wrote. "However, I appreciate that email can sometimes persuade reluc- tant subjects to talk, it gives them more control over the content. "In several instances reporters in my newsroom broke good stories through email contact when at- tempts to track down their sub- jects by other methods failed." She noted emails could pro- vide direct access to a subject who might otherwise be protected by a "force-field" of PR minders. However, as editor-in-residence at Waikato Institute of Technol- ogy, Sherson is concerned many students use email as a first op- tion for interviews. "Face-to-face interviews can reveal things like body language, evasiveness, in- tonation and emphasis. They can paint pictures for the reader. Emails can never do that." Fellow Kiwi Allie Webber wrote that email interviews had become part of her survival toolkit as a freelance journalist and improved both accessibility and accuracy. "They sometimes open doors with someone you've never met -- because instead of rejecting your interview request out of hand they see what you're on about," she wrote. She found them espe- cially useful for scientific, medical and technical subjects. "I work for the Royal College of Surgeons and sometimes I engage in a kind of running chatroom in- terview with specialist surgeons via email," she explained. "This helps me understand complex subjects like otolaryngology and cardiomyopathy. The combina- tion of email interviews, phone interviews and access to the internet is absolutely brilliant. It has completely revitalised my re- porting." Webber calls interviewees back to probe deeper if they seem to be determined to use email to or- chestrate corporate spin. "People frequently write differently from the way they talk and tend to run the flavour extractor over their written replies so email interviews can be strong on accuracy and explanation and weak on colour and pizzazz," she noted. However, she recently found email a more effective way of inter- viewing an elite swim coach who was a fast talker. "He was great tal- ent but talked at a million miles an hour and would've been impos- sible to capture in written notes," Webber recalled. "I sent him some written email questions and luck- ily he writes just as colourfully as he talks. This was magic." Newspaper consultant Pieter Wessels recalled an editor in the 1960s who reprimanded him for doing an interview over the telephone. "He thought it was lazy journalism, even though my live interview of a telephonist as bushfires swept through her vil- lage was picked up by all the other media," he wrote. He was later admonished for conducting an interview with a source in Antarc- tica -- via telex machine. Wessels argued the source of the problem was editors trying to work with tighter budgets and fewer resources. "Email inter- views are so quick and easy that one reporter can do three of them in the time it takes to do one real interview," he noted. He warned even email inter- views might be 'old hat'. "The youngsters' new and special skill is interviewing by chat, SMS and other instant messaging, which is a whole other kettle of fish." So there you have it. A column sourced completely via email. Did it work? Could it have been re- searched better face-to-face or by telephone? You be the judge. Mark Pearson is professor of journalism at Bond University, Queensland. Mark_Pearson@bond.edu.au Email interviews are now quite common, but there are pros and cons Email interviews present challenges "The youngsters' new and special skill is interviewing by chat, SMS and other instant messaging, which is a whole other kettle of fish." February 2006 PANPA BULLETIN | 31 MEDIA MATTERS MARK PEARSON