McGuire on Media

E-mails make reporting easy, but are they the road to perdition?

The Ann Arbor News kicked up an important journalistic firestorm when it refused to pose e-mail questions to University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman for a compelling investigative story on academic standards for athletes.

Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn fueled the firestorm when he labeled the Ann Arbor News’ action “churlish.” he complete quote was: (The Ann Arbor News “came off as churlish by insisting on setting the rules for how she was allowed to comment.  They punished their readers — who deserved to hear Coleman’s side of the story — in favor of standing on ceremony.”

Zorn does a reasonable job of delineating all the issues in a case like this, but the “standing on ceremony”  comment seem like serious fighting words demanding exploration.  This e-mail interview question is far more than a “ceremonial” issue. It is an important credibility and ethical issue for journalists and journalism educators to debate and resolve. It is especially crucial that we come up with a consistent, transparent practice. If we don’t, Zorn will be absolutely correct. We will look “churlish.”

Let’s start with  the obvious. E-mail interviewing is really easy. I’ve done it for this blog when I interviewed Roger Buoen of MinnPost. I’ve known Roger for 25 years, I trust him completely and the e-mail interview seemed like the natural thing to do.  There was not going to be a lot of confrontation. My readers were not going to be harmed by getting a carefully considered, even filtered account. 

Another perfect example of this “comfortable” use of the e-mail interview comes in one of my favorite recent journalism pieces. Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark did a mesmerizing Sean Taylor interview with Rob King of via e-mail.  Clark and King have known each other a long time. The conversation was heartfelt and insightful, but it was conducted via e-mail.

There is simply no denying this method is easy and comfortable. It is happening a lot. Is it smart? Are we using the method consistently? Do we have a teachable standard for using e-mail interviews versus in-person interviews? Are we arbitrary and capricious in our choice about which method is acceptable?   Those are far tougher questions and as the Ann Arbor News-UM flap shows, they are not academic. 

They are not academic at my journalism school either. The Cronkite School insists students do in-person or telephone interviews on the simple basis that reporters should be listening to the answers to questions and formulating clarifying questions as a result of what they hear.

We all know why we want to do certain interviews in person.  We want to interview the president of the university, not her lawyers, her PR consultants and everybody else who can be crowded into conference room to wordsmith every participle. We want to see if the interview subject is confident and in command, or fumbling and struggling to avoid disaster.  In the parlance of many reporters, they go into such an interview with their “BS detector on high alert.’ That detector is firmly in the off position during an e-mail interview. 

In the Zorn interview with Ed Petykiewicz, the editor of the Ann Arbor News, an interview conducted by e-mail, Petykiewicz laudably articulates a standard. ” In general, we use e-mail to gather factual information such as the number of teachers employed by a school district or the amount of money being spent for computers by a governmental agency. That information is objective. It’s easy to provide and it’s easy to understand.
We generally rely on face-to-face interviews or telephone interviews for everything else.”

I buy the editor’s statement at face value. I am concerned whether that’s the standard most people are using. I will speculate that the trust and previous relationship we have with our source dictates whether we want to face the interview subject, or conduct the interview by e-mail. And that’s a standard that’s going to get us in trouble.  That will be viewed as “churlish.” We cannot create a situation in which we we treat ‘friends’ one way and “targets” another. 

As I have written this entry I have decided on my own new process and my reasoning for it.  My values are:

  • I must value consistency.
  • I have a firm belief that readers suffer when PR teams and lawyers labor over news responses.

Holding those values means I am going to work hard to avoid e-mail interviews. At the same time I know that pledge is going to prove impractical in certain situations. If I do an e-mail interview my new rule is they must be done in real-time with back and forth communication allowed and encouraged.

I think in this case the Ann Arbor News made the right decision. While I disagree with Zorn’s conclusions, I am sympathetic with his goal. We do not want to come off as “churlish.”  As much as reporters want to cherish the “Front-page, establishment-can-go-to-hell’ persona, that’s not smart in a world that demands sophisticated reporting.