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When you’re a career journalist, you often find yourself getting into the deep groove of habit. A story breaks and you approach your known sources on the subject. You call them up for a comment or drop them an email query. But as I re-examine so many ingrained practices of journalism here at MediaShift, I wonder if the habitual practice of collecting interviews for stories is broken or in need of a change.

I’ve had multiple sources take my email queries and simply post them to their personal weblogs. I’ve been fed recycled quotes by company executives via email. I’ve tried out an invitation-only wiki to ask sources to answer questions in public. So many times, I’ve wondered whether I’ve really approached the right sources for every story or whether I missed someone vital and important.

Recently, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz and BuzzMachine blogger Jeff Jarvis have wondered whether the interview has become obsolete because sources can simply blog their own answers or set their own ground rules. Those articles were inspired by the kerfuffle between Wired reporter Fred Vogelstein — who doesn’t like email interviews — and entreprenuer Jason Calacanis and blog pioneer Dave Winer, who preferred email or their own blog spaces to tell their answers and retain some control.

Rather than recount or rebuff those arguments, I thought it would be more productive to list the ways that most interviews between a journalist and a source take place today, explaining the pluses and minuses of each one. I don’t believe that interviews are obsolete or will become obsolete, as long as people remain curious about what experts or people at the center of big news stories have to say.

I do believe that technology and the Internet can help journalists do their job better, and perhaps allow them the space to give the full context for quotes. And it is true that some sources now, in effect, run their own publications via blogs so they can give their own counterpoints or totally control the message they put out in the world. I’ve interviewed hundreds of people for stories I’ve written, and have been interviewed dozens of times as a source as well — so I can understand both sides of the equation.

Interview Formats

Email Interview
For the journalist:
Email interviews allow journalists to query multiple people quickly, though responses can be slower than having people answer their phones (or voicemail). Email responses don’t require transcribing notes or taped interviews, so they are usually more accurate. Follow-up questions can take a bit more time than asking them in person or over the phone. Problems crop up when you don’t know if the emailer is really who they say they are. It’s also difficult to catch the tone or emotion of the source over email exchanges.

For the source:
Email interviews give the source time to give a more reasoned answer, as they are not caught off guard as in person or over the phone. Email answers can require a lot of typing, meaning more energy expended by the source. Email provides an easy record to keep for accuracy or for future reference. One downside is that sources might easily misplace or forget about emailed questions, as people often get overwhelmed with email messages.

Possible improvements:
If a source requires an email exchange over other forms of communication with a journalist, then the source should accept follow-up questions and try to give full, timely answers. Ground rules should be set in advance if sources want to use the full interview material on their own personal blog. Email sources should be prepared to prove they are who they say they are. With permission, reporters could post their entire email exchanges as collateral material with stories posted online.

Phone Interview
For the journalist:
Phone interviews are looser, and give the journalist and source a chance to connect in a more personal way. That allows the journalist to hear the voice of the source and capture intonations and more subtle cues. If phone conversations are recorded by mutual agreement, the journalist has the full audio to mine for accurate quotes. Phone interviews take longer to transcribe than email interviews, but save time without the back-and-forth that comes over email. Journalists can cut in with more questions during a phone interview, and both the interviewer and interviewee must think on their feet.

For the source:
Phone interviews give the source a chance to hear the interviewer and judge better where the article might be going. If the journalist doesn’t understand a point made by the source, the source can more quickly explain these points by phone without requring an email exchange. The source might prefer a phone conversation if they are not comfortable writing out answers or using electronic communication.

Possible improvements:
Ground rules could be set about recording phone conversations and whether both parties would get digital copies of the interviews afterward. The journalist could include full audio interviews as collateral material online. If the journalist is relying on notes instead of a recording, it would be a good idea to read back or check quotes with the source before publication.

IM Interview
For the journalist:
Interviews via instant messaging allow for quick exchanges that get material to the journalist quickly. Plus, the journalist can save instant messaging sessions so they have the full interviews at their fingertips. The problem of identity is similar to email interviews because the journalist can’t tell if the real person is typing on the other end of the computer. One problem is that the IM medium is not conducive to long, thoughtful answers (or questions).

For the source:
Instant messaging can be a good way to connect with a reporter for a brief time if the source is off of email or traveling. As with email, there is a record of the exchange that the source can save to have as proof of context in misquotes. One problem with IM is that it requires a lot of typing if the source has lengthy answers to questions.

Possible improvements:
It’s much easier now to connect webcams via instant messaging so a webconference might be an improved way to see the source and converse a bit more naturally. The problem is that it would be difficult to record and play back such a video to transcribe quotes, so the journalist would probably still have to do an audio recording as well.

In-Person Interview
For the journalist:
Sitting face-to-face with a source is the most powerful way to interview them. Not only do you get the intonations from a phone call, but you also get body movements, gestures and get a sense of place. That means you can place the person and describe them better in an article. Being there in-person also means you have to multi-task with your attention, properly reacting to each answer, checking your recorder to make sure it’s working, and taking notes on the fly.

For the source:
Many sources enjoy meeting journalists in person, especially if it is on the source’s home turf — their office or home. In person, there might also be an intimidation factor, a fear of asking tough questions because the journalist is right there in front of the source. A sensitive source might not want to be seen in public with a journalist, so that presents problems for some in-person interviews.

Possible improvements:
If there is an issue about where to meet or intimidation, the source and journalist might meet at a neutral location like a cafe or restaurant. In these cases, the journalist will need to have a good audio recorder to catch the words of the source in a loud environment. As with other recorded interviews, in-person interviews can be included as collateral material online.

No matter what the format is, I believe both sides in the journalist/source equation need to bend a bit to make the interview work. Journalists need to realize that they don’t hold all the cards, and should be willing to email, call or meet sources to get the information they need. They should make sure the quotes are accurate and not taken out of context. And sources should be sure to get permission before running full interviews or personal emails on their blogs. Most interviews are part of a symbiotic relationship, where the journalist needs the source to get the story right, and the source needs the journalist for publicity or to help inform the public.

What do you think? How do you think interviews should evolve with technology and the Internet? Are sources gaining more power with their own blogs, and how will the dynamic of sources and journalists change? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo of interview by Sean Barry.

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