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Talk to Me

Sunday, June 10th, 2007

So I posted, er, wrote a Newsweek column with my take on the interview controversy that’ s been simmering lately. In case you’re not following the link, basically the story is that some bloggers are turning down real-time interviews on phone or F2F, saying they prefer to do it via email, or IM. An interesting issue, or so I thought, about Internet empowerment. My take was that they have valid points to make about what can be problems from the subject side, like misquotes, improper context, or “gotcha” quotes. But I concluded that the real-time interview is crucial for journalists to do their best work, and when journalists to their best work, it’s the reader who benefits.

I talked to some sources in the course of doing the column, most of them in real-time phone interviews. In my fairly brief column space, of course, I knew that there was no room to fully address all the points they made. Being smart people, they knew it too. Jeff Jarvis, though. lamented that we didn’t do it by email, so there would be a full transcript for those who wanted to dig deeper, and at the least to see the full context of what he said. (Separately Jay Rosen also emailed me with a similar regret that I couldn’t fully elucidate his point.)

Jarvis’s post is longer than my column, and he has taken the platform of his blog to explain where he’s coming from. The idea that a blogger can address an issue and clarify himself fully after being quoted in mainstream media is certainly a welcome development. But I want to make clear that just because the column didn’t have much of Jarvis’s voice in it, that doesn’t mean that my interviews with him and the others I spoke to weren’t essential. I think it’s bad journalistic practice to make your mind up before you begin work on a story, and in this case I certainly can say that speaking to Jarvis and others led to my writing a quite different column than I would have otherwise. In other words, I wasn’t just calling to collect quotes, but to listen to what people had to say, trying to keep my own mind open. I doubt that the interviews would have had a simillar impact if conducted by email. That’s leads directly to my conclusion in the column.

He also claims that is of great value to archive and even post the raw transcripts of such interviews. He writes, “I’d say that reporters who insist on doing interviews on the phone without benefit of thought, time, and transcript are robbing us all of priceless knowledge, accuracy, and context.” My contention is that while email interviews are easily posted, they’re simply not as valuable to the interviewer. In many cases they are not an improvement to the process of journalism but a step back.

No one is forced to do an interview with a journalist, and many journalists will agree, if there’s no other alternative, to doing email interviews. But they’re less likely to be useful. In any case, I do not detect a widespread hunger among readers to read dozens of pages of transcripts or listen to hours of MP3 files, for the backstory on a column they read in Newsweek, or even a story in the New York Times. To me the issue isn’t transparency, but trust. I hope people trust me to handle our conversations fairly when I speak to them. I also hope they trust me when I say that the best interviews are those where I learn something, and those interviews almost always are in real time.

Every journalist should appreciate the generosity of those who choose to talk to him or her. Sources know, or should know, that we’re not doing it for them. We’re doing it for the story. Of couse there’s some self-interest here in the part of journalists, because doing a good job is good for us. But I also say it informs the public. It’s our readers who get the benefit of this.

4 Comments

  • Well said, Steven. And I’ve certainly had my say on blog, as you’ve pointed out. I think we fundamentally disagree that an email interview must be inferior to a phone interview. I think it can, in many or most cases, be superior — more thought out, more informative, more accurate — and there is now the bonus benefit of being able to point to all quotes in context. No one but no one is saying that most people want to read pages of transcripts; it is still your role to assimilate and analyze and distill and edit. But for those who want more and in cases of dispute, the written record is unquestionably valuable. I did say that when we talked, only now I can’t point to it because we talked on the phone.

  • I was just interviewed by phone, and the reporter, while nice and attempting to be fair, wrote dozens of words and phrases I never said in his final piece. Meanwhile his follow-up question came via email, and I responded that way. Lo and behold it’s the ONLY part of the interview that is accurately represented.

    Reporters need to STOP paraphrasing, then people won’t be so inclined to want a record they can use as proof of what they said at a later date. Seems to me that with this position you’ve taken, you’re just trying to protect reporters from having to be accurate.

  • Sure, sometimes reporters get it wrong, which is why many interviewees like the email form. They feel more in control of their words. Which of course they are.

    But there is a certain irony here. We are talking about social media and bloggers and a communications revolution, but we don’t want to have an actual real-time conversation with a reporter?

    In one breath, we say to big major corporation that it is all about realizing that you have no control, that the customer is in charge, etc. etc. And in the next, we want to do interviews by email so we have more control?

    Walk the talk. If you are worried about being misquoted or misrepresented, tape the interview yourself.

  • I think people blog for pretty much the same reasons other folks become journalists, with the main one being that they care about what happens in the world. A blogger can write as much as he chooses, while a journalist’s space is limited, so it is understandable that the journalist (and his editors!) would distill the information he gleans. Were I a journalist, knowing that my take on any given story may not be the only valid one, I would organize my email conversations, interview transcripts, and other research from the story, post the relevant parts online, and put the link to this data in the story for those who want greater detail. In much the same way, bloggers include relevant links in their writings.

    I can empathize with folks who don’t want to be interviewed in person. I am king of the Foot-In-Mouth people, and when I am discussing an idea or issue, I don’t want my awkwardness to eclipse my ideas. I struggle with the wording of posts I make (I don’t get interviewed!), editing and re-editing every phrase, re-arranging sentences, and deleting paragraphs. It’s even worse in person, with every thought bringing up multiple possible tangents, each being a Path of No Return. In a word, I blither, and I make an easy target. I may struggle when writing, but the idea has a better chance of being transmitted. That said, if one really cares about something, he should be willing to endure discomfort for the sake of its advance. Truth is nobody’s exclusive province; even clods and monsters are right some of the time, and if U really care about something, U should take the risk of an interview.

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