I once had an ex-girlfriend who said that I type for a living. (Since at the time I was a reporter for UPI — and UPI was the second-largest news organization in the world — you understand why she was ex.) Closer to the truth is that I talk to people people for a living. And e-mail has changed that.
It is one thing to get face-to-face with someone and interview them. You can pick up a lot from the non-verbal stuff — sometimes more than from the verbal. It’s not as good to get someone on the phone and talk to them that way; there’s the inevitable loss of personal contact and inflection. On the other hand, it’s vastly more efficient, and with some practice and careful listening, it’s pretty much worth the trade-off.
But now everyone has e-mail. Even executives. And this I do not like at all.
First of all, there’s a spectacular lack of spontaneity. You submit your precise questions, and the interviewee responds (or doesn’t) precisely. There’s the chance for follow-up (you have an e-mail address, after all), but the give-and-take that makes for excellent and revealing conversation is irretrievably lost. Furthermore, you never know if you’re talking to the person himself or his flak. And if you’ve arranged the interview through a flak, you’d better believe that the responses have been massaged, if not entirely written by the PR department. It wouldn’t surprise me, in some cases, if the person being quoted were entirely unaware that he had “granted” an “interview.”
It may be something, and it may even be journalism, but too much of it makes for a sorry watered-down version of journalism.
The trade magazine Editor & Publisher had a good piece on this recently:
Before resorting to e-mail interviews, reporters should ask “Why?” If e-mail is being used for the reporter’s or source’s convenience, a telephone or face-to-face interview is more appropriate. Telephone interviews capture tone of a voice. Onsite interviews reveal a source’s demeanor or surroundings so that the reporter can add an element of human interest or spontaneity to the story while enhancing the writing and building trust with the reader.
In other words: resist e-mail. A good choice.