USF’s The Oracle bans email interviews, following other student newspapers

The Oracle
The University of South Florida’s student newspaper The Oracle is no longer allowing email interviews, except under rare circumstances. In a letter to readers Monday, Editor-in-Chief Divya Kumar said an increasing number of sources are requesting email interviews in hopes of having more control over their message.

As a newspaper, is it our job to provide readers with the truth, directly from the source — not from the strategically coordinated voices of public relations staff or prescreened e-mail answers.

We don’t think these responses provide our readers with the unvarnished truth, and we will no longer include them in our articles at the expense of compromising the integrity of the information we provide. University departments do not have one, centralized voice, but rather are made up of a multitude of diverse perspectives.

Kumar alluded to the value of face-to-face interviews and phoners, and pointed out that the truth isn’t always eloquent.

Sometimes it is in an unfiltered facial expression. Sometimes it is in the pauses between what is vocalized. Most of the time the truth is found somewhere between the unrefined, genuine thoughts of the people who make the campus what it is, and that is what we hope to provide you with.

The Oracle will make rare exceptions when sources cannot be reached any other way, and for fact-checking purposes, Kumar said. If the paper’s reporters do interview a source via email, they’ll let readers know in the story. (Poynter.org typically does this as well for transparency.)

“We made the decision after we found ourselves hitting walls in our reporting when the number of sources asking for questions emailed continued to increase,” Kumar said via email. (Yes, we realize the irony.) “It’s far from an ideal situation because we don’t want to restrict the amount of information we provide our readers with, but we’d rather provide our readers with information that we can be accountable in knowing is unvarnished and accurate.” After hearing the news, a few departments told The Oracle that the ban may limit the paper’s access to sources, Kumar said.

The Oracle is one of a few college newspapers that have recently banned email interviews. Princeton University’s The Daily Princetonian did so last September, saying email interviews have “resulted in stories filled with stilted, manicured quotes that often hide any real meaning and make it extremely difficult for reporters to ask follow-up questions or build relationships with sources.”

Henry Rome, The Daily Princetonian’s former editor-in-chief, tweeted earlier this month that reporters are now getting more access to sources than they did before the ban.

Stanford University’s Stanford Daily announced last October that it, too, decided to ban email interviews for many of the same reasons. By contrast, J-School Buzz — an independent blog about the University of Missouri’s Journalism School – said last year that the J-School “needs to embrace email interviews” more often because they “are more convenient for sources and journalists” and “guarantee accurate quotes.”

Journalists have long debated the effectiveness of email interviews. When I interviewed journalists last year about how they choose to interview sources (in person, by phone, email, Instant Message, etc.), I found that many take a blended approach.

Steve Fox, who teaches journalism at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, told me at the time that most of his students use email interviews as a first resort. “They will wait back to hear back from emails they send out rather than picking up the phone or walking by the professor’s office,” he said.

It’s encouraging, then, to hear that some student journalists are now choosing not to rely on email interviews. Less encouraging is the fact that so many of their sources have insisted on them.

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  • JTFloore

    if you can cite such stories, please do.

  • Work Avoidance Log

    Seriously?You haven’t?

    You need to read more. Or better.

    Seriously.

    Back to work:

  • JTFloore

    i never recall reading a story that said: “Miller, the police chief, said in a telephone interview in which he sounded really pissed off.” Or: “He slouched in the chair as he talked, an obvious admission of guilt.” Or: “you could see the sincerity in her eyes.”
    please.

  • Work Avoidance Log

    JT:
    The problem with email interviews is not that sources or subjects fail to respond to them. The problem–as the story pretty clearly points out–is that sources or subjects have figured out how easy it is to “game” them. Increasingly, email responses are carefully constructed statements designed to evade questions or change the subject. Neither tactic is prohibited by law or custom, but at least in person or on the phone, a reporter can hear inflection, notice eye-contact and body language–and, obviously, tell whether the response is from the source/subject, or his/her/its assistant, attorney or flak.

    Now, if we–as a profession–could apply the same healthy skepticism to Twitter postings, we’d be getting somewhere.

    Back to Work:

  • JTFloore

    ludicrous.
    public officials dodge questions ALL the TIME in phoners, face-to-face interviews and, shamefully enough, even on tv for all the world to see. the ONLY reason to do an e-mail interview in the first place is for the immediate convenience and accessibility, the very reason the Oracle gives for still sometimes permitting them. a competent reporter is going to ask the right questions anyway. the platform an interviewee happens to use to answer has virtually no bearing at all on the substance or relevance of the responce. besides, if people being questioned these days do not repond to an e-mail and/or answer follow up questions, you KNOW they are dodging you. that speaks for itself.

  • http://lubetkinsotherblog.blogspot.com PodcastSteve

    Fantastic decision by these student editors. I wish some more mainstream news media would reject the canned, prepared statement responses that many news sources insist on providing so they can hide from actually defending their actions.