Email interviews a boon for overseas and foreign reporters

Note: This blog post also ran in the Society of Professional Journalism’s “Journalism and the World” blog. Click here to see the original post.

I’ve long thought that email interviews were the lazy man’s way of researching a story. You put together a list of questions, copy and email them to everyone who might potentially be a source — whoever writes back, you cut-and-paste their answers into your story outline, and you’ve got the article.

But now it seems that some sources prefer them, too. Check out, for example, this article by Washington Post writer Howard Kurtz: Interviews, Going the Way of the Linotype?

An email interview, even more so than a taped interview, protects both the source and the reporter.

For international journalists, email interviews have a few other advantages, as well.

For example, if you are in the United States, it can be very difficult to call China and some other Asian countries. One of my editors, used to have to get quotes from Asia on a regular basis, and completely gave up trying to do it by telephone.

When I was back in the States last summer and had to do China interviews, it was equally difficult. I tried AT&T among other providers. The calls just wouldn’t go through, and if they did, the connections were lousy, there were echoes on the line, it was really hard to have a conversation. This is really ironic, since I have no problems calling out of China at all. When I have an interview scheduled with a US-based source, I arrange to make the call. Sometimes, people do insist on calling me — about 20% the connection is fine. The rest of the time, it’s pretty horrible and I have to call them back. When I call out, it’s crystal clear 100% of the time (I use CNC IP calling cards, and recommend them highly.) People can’t tell that I’m calling from overseas.

But my point was — email eliminates the problems with bad telephone connections.

Email also reduces the problems of understanding people’s accents. Most non-native English speakers write better than they speak — and, if they wanted to be absolutely certain about what they said, they can have someone look over their email before they send it out (not to mention running a spell and grammar checker over it). There’s no way to do that with a telephone interview.

Email also eliminates the problem of the reporter’s accent. Foreign reporters can run their questions through a grammar checker, a colleague, and maybe even past their editors just to be on a safe side. And they’ll never hear that annoying, “I’m sorry. I didn’t understand the question. I still can’t understand you, what did you say?”

Finally, email solves the time lag problem. You send out your quotes during the day, your time. The sources answer them twelve hours later — during their working hours. You come in to work in the morning, and you’ve got your answers and can send out follow-up questions. But before doing all of this, you can first educate yourself with details like the 117 Email Spam Trigger Words to Avoid and Stay out of the Junk Folder.

It’s no good for breaking news stories — but for those you have to stay up all night, anyway, so you might as well make the calls.

Signing off in Shanghai,