Whenever I give journalism students assignments that require interviews, it’s inevitable that someone will ask whether email interviews are acceptable. And invariably, my responses are:
- In-person, Skype, Google Hangout or telephone interviews are preferable.
- A text chat is better than an email exchange.
- If email is the only option, call it an exchange, not an interview. An interview requires a conversation.
Aspiring journalists need to practice doing the real thing.
That last point is critical. Interviews are conversations between humans. Read Ken Metzlers’ classic, Creative Interviewing, and you will understand that proficient interviewing requires the development of research, affective and narrative skills that you develop over time and learn to apply under all kinds of constraints. You don’t develop those skills by sending off canned questions and getting back canned answers. While interviewing by email feels easier and safer, you need to practice taking the risk of asking people you don’t know to open up and share their knowledge and experiences. It’s uncomfortable, yes. It can be stressful, especially when you are on deadline, yes. But the only way to get good at it is to take the risk.
If you rely on email “interviews” usually won’t yield good content.
The email “interview” is also unlikely to the highest quality content, either. The best moments in interviews often emerge from digressions that don’t occur in an email exchange. Email interviews don’t allow follow-ups in real time. You don’t have the visual or aural that might tell you that your source might have more to say, or that you should proceed gently because you are treading on painful ground.
Besides, depending on who the interview subject is, you can’t be sure that your questions are being answered by a source. How do you know that the politician or executive you queried didn’t just fob your questions off on a PR staffer?
Some email “interviews” are really requests to co-author the piece with you.
If you send a series of questions that require a subject to write paragraphs in response that you then reproduce at length, who’s article is it?