February 12, 2003

Lately, a number of Internet hoaxes have caught journalists off-guard, including a case last week in which one journalist relied on an e-mail interview and was embarrassingly duped. Here’s a look at how to use e-mail or instant messengers in your reporting, while avoiding humiliating corrections.
E-mail and instant messengers offer great advantages to reporters, among them:

  • They save time — no need to play “phone tag” for hours waiting for a return call.

  • E-mail interview queries are efficient. The reporter can provide a complete introduction and a list of questions and, if the source cooperates, get back a digital file with information, quotes, and other story material, making it easy to cut-and-paste quotes into your article or post entire transcripts on the Web.

  • They provide a written record of what sources say in case they dispute something.

  • They give the subject time to think and formulate a response.

  • They may be useful for interviewing people in different time zones, or people who might not speak English well but can write it OK.
But there are several important disadvantages:

  • A reporter doesn’t know who is replying. That executive’s e-mail may have been carefully crafted by public relations advisers. Or someone could be posing.

  • E-mail denies the reporter the chance to ask spontaneous questions or to immediately follow up on an answer.

  • You have to be very specific with your questions because you can’t ask follow-ups immediately.

  • Your source can post complete transcripts online as easily as you, and some have done so when they’ve not been happy with the final story.

  • They’re not good for getting unfiltered reaction. You can’t see how someone physically responds to a question. You don’t hear him or her hesitate or struggle to find their words and you don’t gain insight into his or her thought process; you just get the finished product.

  • An online interview may net you a useable quote, but probably won’t produce a revealing interview.

  • E-mail may last forever. Once sent, it can be forwarded to strangers. So keep it professional at all times.

  • Identify yourself as a reporter.

  • Apply the same critical thinking and fact-checking skills that you would to any other information source.

  • Verify your sources and their online identities. Remember, e-mail addresses can be faked.
Last week’s blunder was a good reminder of the final point. The website of Computerworld magazine published a story claiming a radical Islamic group was behind the recent Slammer worm attack that clogged the Internet. The next day the story was retracted after it was learned that one journalist had deceived another.

Dan Verton had based his article on an e-mail interview with a person he identified as “Abu Mujahid,” a member of the Pakistan-based Harkat-ul-Mujahadeen. But Mujahid was really Brian McWilliams, 43, a free-lance journalist in Durham, N.H., who has written for Salon.com and Wired News. McWilliams said he had duped Verton because he wanted to teach reporters “to be more skeptical of people who claim they’re involved in cyberterrorism.” In a follow-up story, Verton wrote, “I feel like I’ve been had, and that’s never an easy thing to swallow. So, I’m left here scratching fleas as the price you sometimes pay for sleeping with dogs.”

Here are a few other tips from Poynter Online to help you make sure you get the facts straight.

And in case you’re wondering what happens when journalists do get fooled, here’s a list of examples of journalists’ goofs and gaffes

SUBMIT YOUR TIPS FOR PUBLICATION: What websites do you find most useful in your reporting? Send a brief note with your name, affiliation and a description of a favorite site to tips@cyberjournalist.net and I may publish them in future columns.

Coming Tuesday: Sree Sreenivasan
Coming next Friday: Jon Dube

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Jonathan Dube is the Director of Digital Media for CBC News, the President of the Online News Association and the publisher of CyberJournalist.net. An award-winning…
Jonathan Dube

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