October 7, 2003

Jonathan Dube clearly laid out the advantages and disadvantages of interviewing sources via e-mail in his Web Tips column earlier this year. E-mail interviews are now like telephone interviews — they have their shortcomings when stacked against the in-person interview format, but they’re also a reality for journalists under deadline pressure. Here’s a look at how to use this form of communication efficiently for reporting.

Before you pose the questions, consider e-mail etiquette for reporters:

  • We don’t all work for well-known publications like The New York Times and Newsweek, so remember to introduce yourself and your news organization, its circulation, and its importance to your community.

  • Explain just enough about your story or project to entice the source to participate.

  • Make clear how you came across the source’s name (someone referred you, etc.).

  • Explain how you think their comments can add perspective or insight to your story.

  • Provide your telephone number, geographic location, and other relevant contact information.

  • Offer to make it a phone interview rather than an e-mail interview.

  • Just as you should verify the identity of someone who approaches you via e-mail, the source is uncertain about you. Always give people a chance and enough time to verify your identity.

  • Provide links to your previous articles to show that you have covered subjects fairly in the past.

  • Stress that you are on deadline. (Be clear about when you need responses by in order to meet your deadline.)

  • This is not an e-mail to a colleague, friend, or family member. Use upper and lower case writing, with no abbreviations for common words; full sentences; and correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

  • Never send questions in an attachment, a Microsoft Word document or other format. People are uncomfortable opening files they receive from strangers lest there be a computer virus or worm attached.

E-mailing the interview questions:

  • Whether you’re conducting a face-to-face, phone, or e-mail interview, do the same rigorous background research to prepare the questions.

  • E-mail the questions to at least three sources that have similar backgrounds. Hopefully at least one will respond immediately. (Don’t cc the three. Send separate e-mails.)

  • Keep questions short, clear, and to the point with just one concept or inquiry per question.

  • Start with overview questions — but only a couple. No one feels like typing out long general responses.

  • Move on to specific, targeted questions — no more than four or five so you don’t overwhelm the source with the request. This is where they find the delete button especially handy.

  • Ask questions that get a “yes” or “no” response only to confirm facts or statements.

  • Ask for documents, studies, and images relevant to your story. Sources can easily attach and send these to you.

  • Request the names of other sources that may be relevant to your story.

Once you e-mail the questions, what should you do while waiting and how long should you wait for a response?

  • If this is a breaking news story, call your sources after an hour or two (or sooner depending on your deadline cycle).

  • If this is a feature piece, give them at least 48 hours before sending a second request to the same person.

  • Keep looking for other reputable sources you can ask the same questions.

  • Brainstorm for questions you might have forgotten to ask.

The response arrives. Now what?

  • Don’t send the “Thank you” note yet.

  • Read the responses carefully. Weigh them against the reporting that you have accomplished since sending out the initial e-mail. Are there holes that need to be filled? Are the responses clear? Do you need clarifications?

  • Now send out the: “Dear <So-and-so>, thank you for taking the time … I would appreciate a few clarifications. I want to be sure I understand.”

  • Request clarifications; politely ask again about questions that went unanswered; slip in the follow-up questions and the new questions you formulated while waiting.

Closing the loop:

  • Now’s the time for the “thank you” note.

  • Let the source know that you will send a link or clip of the article when it’s available. Then, set up a reminder so you deliver what you promised!

  • Build the source’s confidence in you: use their responses fairly and in context.

These steps will help you get the most out of e-mail interviews while boosting your credibility in your new sources’ eyes, giving you contacts around the country and world to turn to at a moment’s notice for future stories.

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Visiting Professor at Indiana University, Bloomington. Former NY Bureau Chief CNET News.com.
Sandeep Junnarkar

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