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.)
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.