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In the midst of a good article for student journalists about the perils of “e-reporting,” Mike Heistand of the Student Press Law Center notes the following:
Despite its growing popularity, some veteran journalists scoff at interviews and research conducted entirely by â€œe-reporting,â€ arguing â€” I think somewhat persuasively â€” that email and other forms of written, electronic communication miss the nuances, depth and spontaneity of an in-person interview. Even telephone interviews allow a reporter to hear changes in the speakerâ€™s tone or voice inflection that e-mail and its close cousins donâ€™t pick up very well. A written, â€œOf course he did itâ€ is much different from the same statement when said sarcastically or with a chuckle.
The fact that written communication lacks the nuance of an in-person encounter is hardly surprising, news, or unique to computer-mediated communication.
The problems of vocal inflection and nonverbal cues have been known for quite some time (If you’d like an example, just study the arguments people have over the potential use of sarcasm in texts from the Christian Bible).
I cringe when “veteran journalists scoff” about new means of reporting. Sure, there are perils with using e-mail or instant messaging for an interview, and an in-person interview is the sine qua non of interviewing, but in-person interviews aren’t always possible, whether because of time constaints or distance.
I’ve interviewed people by instant messaging, e-mail, phone, face-to-face, and video chat. Nothing beats the ability to see the subject’s expression. But again, that isn’t always possible.
My general rule of thumb: synchronous communication whenever possible (either via telephonic means – skype or phone – or IM), and asynchronous communication when not possible (e-mail). Whatever means I use, I record the conversation, either by chat transcript or by recording the audio or video for future reference. The key thing to me is getting a record, so there’s no question of context or “misquoting.”
Fortunately, modern computer technology allows a bridge to fill the telephonic/written gap – videoconferencing via iChat or Skype. Of course, it takes some time to train some sources to understand these new, promising tools. But it is usually worth the effort.
Perhaps more journalists will begin using these means to conduct face-to-face interviews via Internet means.