The changing face of e-mail interviews

I've always learned that e-mail interviews are an absolute last resort. The criteria: the interviewee has to be on the other side of the world, on a spaceship or in jail.

But as e-mail and other web-based networks (Twitter, Facebook) become such a huge part of the communicative landscape, e-mail interviews don't have the same "unprofessional" vibe they used to.

I'm not suggesting that an e-mail interview should entirely replace a phone or face-to-face interview, but it's a great supplement.

Freelance journalist Kim Lisagor said in a recent conversation that she was shocked when reporters e-mailed her regarding her book, Disappearing Desinations. As a traditionally-trained journalist, she always saw e-mails as a last resort too. 

But she made an interesting observation:

"The only articles that were accurate were the e-mail interviews," Lisagor said.

The great thing about e-mail interviews is that you can pull quotes directly from the e-mail, verbaitim.

Ways to effectively use e-mail interviews:

  • As an introduction: If you have some time to work an a story, shoot your primary sources a quick e-mail. Let them get the gist of your story. Tell them to be expecting a call from you. I've found that this makes my sources a lot more comfortable, and that means a better interview. You can do this introduction through Twitter or Facebook too.  Example: "Hello Mr. Doe, I'm a student reporter at the College Daily and I'm just giving you the heads up that I'll be calling you soon to talk about an article I'm writing. I'm interested in investigating faculty salaries and I know you've been vocal about the topic in the past. Looking forward to talking to you. 
  • To get the basics. Names, places, times, etc. If you have this in an e-mail, you can always resort back to it, directly from the source.  
  • As a fact-checker: Are you unsure about a few statistics or a sequence of events? Rather than finding the time to meet in person again or facing the difficulty of trying to sort out details over the phone, e-mail can be the best way to see the facts straight-forward.Example: Hello, Ms. Doe. I am the College Daily student you spoke with earlier. I want my story to be accurate, and I was hoping you can confirm a few facts:
    • CSU employees will maintain regular pay until the budget is passed
    • The support budget consists of federal money remaining from the 2007-08 school year
    • When that money runs dry the CSU will pay employees from student fees Thanks in advance for the clarification! -Student journalist 

When you shouldn't use e-mail interviews:

  • Really hard news. If there is a scandal with the mayor, it's likely that an e-mail response would be written by a PR person. To get to the root of it and fish through the BS, phone and in-person will produce the best results.
  • Really fluffy features. If you want to capture the sparkle in someone's eye or tone in someone's voice, e-mail just won't do the trick. That doesn't mean cut it out all together. You can still use the e-mail to do an introduction to your subject, then after the interview, send an e-mail to get clarifications you need.
Of course, all e-mail interviews can and should be supplemented with phone and in-person interviews, but the negativity that once surrounded the form of communication should be thrown out the window.  If urgent news needs to get out without the fluff of "spontaneous reaction to a follow-up question," e-mail is certainly acceptable.  
To avoid getting yourself in trouble, Jonathan Dube has a few good tips on Poynter:
  • E-mail may last forever. Once sent, it can be forwarded to strangers. So keep it professional at all times.
  • Identify yourself as a reporter.
  • Apply the same critical thinking and fact-checking skills that you would to any other information source.
  • Verify your sources and their online identities. Remember, e-mail addresses can be faked.