August 16, 2013

“I don’t allow email interviews in any of the classes I teach — except one. If I didn’t allow email interviews in the class tied to The Lantern, we’d never put out a paper.”

I’ve recited those lines to students and others here at Ohio State many times in the three years I’ve served as student media adviser.

Am I being dramatic? I’ve been told I can be.

Am I exaggerating? No.

Some college newspapers have made headlines in the last year for “banning” email interviews: This Poynter story has a nice roundup of bans announced by three of them.

Reading about such edicts, I wondered how the papers could truly ban email interviews and continue to function. With that in mind, I spoke to and, yes, emailed with the editors of 10 prominent college-media outlets. When discussing interview preferences, all ranked email a distant third behind in-person and telephone calls by staff writers, treating them as a last resort.

That’s as it should be — but problems enforcing these standards persist, notably high-profile sources that insist on email interviews. The college papers also have differing views on conducting interviews via social media.

“Incredibly frustrating” — but better than nothing

I spoke with editors at Ohio State, South Florida, Syracuse, Penn State, Harvard, Princeton, Oregon, Wisconsin, Iowa and Maryland and the reality is that none of those college papers has actually banned email interviews. What they have done, though, is clearly defined the order of preference for communicating with sources and pledged transparency on the occasions when email is used.

From those conversations, a number of reasons emerged for why sources in and around universities continue to insist on email interviews:

  • They say they have been misquoted and burned in the past.
  • Their office/department/college requires it because of perceived legal liability or other concerns.
  • They know that email interviews are the only way to completely control their messages.
  • College journalists often don’t ask for in-person or phone interviews, and/or gladly accept when offered email as an alternative.

Divya Kumar, editor-in-chief at The Oracle, the University of South Florida’s paper, said email interviews were banned earlier this year, sparking a reaction she called “interesting.”

The editors at the Tampa-based campus decided to act after noticing an increase in the number of sources requiring written questions in advance of an interview and then using the answers as the interview.

“We felt that was a way of prior review so we decided not to do it,” Kumar said in a phone interview.

Kumar said the high turnover rate among reporters has made it challenging to ensure all contributors know the policy and understand the reason for it, something she said will be a main focus for the upcoming year. Kumar said that after the policy was announced, Oracle editors spiked a story that relied solely on email interviews.

In the rare cases where email interviews are used, Kumar said editors let readers know that the quotes came from emails and why — for example, email is sometimes needed because a source is traveling.

At Princeton, the previous editorial board noticed that too many sources were declining in-person or phone interviews, “putting the reporter in a difficult negotiating position,” said Luc Cohen, editor-in-chief of The Daily Princetonian.

“An interview should be a conversation … we tell our reporters never to leave an interview until they’re sure they’re confident they fully understand the source’s perspective and comments, which isn’t possible in a medium devoid of meaningful, real-time interaction,” Cohen wrote in an email. “Over email, sources often skipped over certain questions on the list, or ignored the reporter’s questions altogether in their response.”

Brittany Horn, editor-in-chief of The Daily Collegian at Penn State, said in the past the paper limited email interviews to its dealings with former president Graham Spanier, noting that email was “the only way he would communicate with us.”

“However, in the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky case, we’ve seen many more professors and administrators turning to email-only correspondence, citing fears of being misquoted or wanting to be able to think more about what they’re saying before speaking to our student journalists,” Horn said in an email. “Obviously, from a journalism standpoint, this is incredibly frustrating.”

Despite that hindrance, Horn said there are no changes planned to the paper’s interviewing polices, “mainly because some members of the administration won’t speak with us any other way, and I’d rather have some comment versus none at all.”

Casey Fabris, editor-in-chief of The Daily Orange at Syracuse, said email interviews are usually conducted by reporters when one source is the authority on a certain subject and will only answer written questions. The paper will then try to ensure that other email interviews in those stories are limited, Fabris said in a phone interview.

Banning quote review

Cohen said The Princetonian’s new policy “emboldened reporters to conduct in-person or phone interviews when sources were initially reluctant.” Sources that complained generally cited concerns over being misquoted or difficulty finding a mutually beneficial time to talk.

“We made it clear that we would continue to allow sources to see their quotes before publication upon request to ensure that there are no factual inaccuracies in what they said and that they have not been misquoted,” Cohen said. But he added that this is not quote review — the paper maintains sole discretion over the quotations published.

Cohen said reporters have tried to avoid email by conducting interviews with administrators early in the morning and using Skype to talk with sources in foreign countries late at night. The Daily Princetonian allows email interviews only in “extraordinary circumstances, as determined by the news editors and the editor-in-chief,” he said.

Rebecca Robbins, managing editor at The Harvard Crimson, said email interviews are “highly discouraged.” That point was reinforced when editors banned quote review last fall.

Email interviews had many of the “same problems that precipitated the quote-review change,” Robbins said in a phone interview, adding that email quotes often weren’t frank and lacked “insight and reflection on what are often complex issues.”

Crimson editors allow email interviews, Robbins said, but mostly limit them to discussions with spokespeople who are stating facts, not opinions.

Policies differ on social-media interviews

While email interviews are clearly discouraged, college outlets have differing views on whether interviews conducted via social media are acceptable. Editors thought interviews via Skype and other video messaging were fine, but opinions differed on interviews conducted using Facebook or Twitter.

At The Lantern, editors don’t use information from Facebook or from Twitter direct messages, since verifying the identity of the sender is more difficult than with an email. (Think about how many times your Facebook or Twitter page has been open in a room that you left, even for a few minutes.)

This story about a man wanted by police in multiple states who had been spotted near campus came to mind as an exception to that rule. But I thought the editors handled the issue well by letting readers know why a Facebook interview was used.

Kristen East, editor-in-chief of The Daily Iowan, said her reporters haven’t used Facebook interviews often, “but I think of it the same as email … as a way to make initial contact.”

“We used Facebook messaging as a prominent source during the events of the Boston Marathon bombings to find and communicate with sources in the area,” East said in an email. She added that Iowan editors caution against Twitter because source verification can be more difficult.

Kumar said other ways of interviewing don’t come up often at The Oracle, but recalled a Facebook interview conducted because a student was studying abroad without a reliable phone. Kumar said she would probably prefer Facebook interviews to email exchanges “because there is a real-time connection and less of a filter.”

It’s a different story at Syracuse, where reporters — particularly in sports — have received information from sources via text or Twitter message. But Fabris said Daily Orange staffers then work to verify that information through normal reporting channels.

How does your college newspaper handle email interviews?

Related: How journalists decide whether to interview by phone, email or face-to-face

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Dan Caterinicchia is the Director of Student Media and a Clinical Assistant Professor at Ohio State University in the School of Communication. He can be…
Dan Caterinicchia

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