The Pros And Cons Of Online Interviews: Tackling A Classic Dilemma Of The Digital AgeBy Susan Johnston December 23rd, 2013
Journalists used to conduct interviews in person or by phone, but that’s changed a lot over the past two decades. “Should I conduct interviews online?” has practically become a classic journalism question.
Yet, there still remains a lot of ambiguities around online interviews. Not all editors consider them credible, and they don’t always elicit the same caliber of responses. If you’re a journalist and want to do your job well, considering pros and cons of each approach is an absolute necessity.
Pros: Email has existed for the past twenty years; by now, it’s as second-nature as picking up a phone. Maybe even more so. Needham, Mass.-based tennis writer Paula Vergara has conducted email interviews with pro tennis players and says it reduces the chances of being misquoted.
The other advantage is that a busy source doesn’t have to be available at a specific time for a phone or in-person interview. “Sometimes when people are in a different country or a different time zone, phone connections or Skype isn’t really possible,” Vergara pointed out.
Cons: Email exchanges lack the spontaneity of a real-time interview. “You do lose some ability to have that back and forth with a person that might take the interview in a different direction,” Vergara said. Whereas real-time interviews often take on a conversational tone, email responses can feel stilted or heavily edited.
Some sources express themselves well in conversation but write confusing emails. “Most people can’t write, so they send you half-written sentences and typos,” Minneapolis freelance writer Yael Grauer said. “You have to go back and forth so many times that it doesn’t save any time.” Grauer has found that some sources copy and paste email responses from outside sources, so if there are abrupt tone shifts or something sounds too heavily edited, you may want to Google a few sentences to see if it’s already been published elsewhere.
Another drawback of email is that the source gets a list of questions all at once. “If I have a hard question on the phone, I leave it for last,” Grauer said. “You can’t do that over email.”
Social Media and Instant Message
Pros: Expediency. Many journalists find “real people” sources on social media sites, so conducting interviews via Twitter direct message, Facebook messaging or Google instant messaging may feel like a natural extension of that process. Dawn Allcot, a freelance writer and owner of Allcot Media in West Babylon, New York, said she sometimes interviews sources via Facebook as a last resort when she’s on deadline and needs a quick quote. “I don’t use it for anything in-depth or controversial,” she added.
These interviews often unfold closer to real-time than email, but social media conversations can disappear unexpectedly as time passes or the site updates. “I don’t trust Facebook because I’ve had regular conversations vanish on there,” Allcot said. She immediately copies the conversation into a Word document so she can refer back to it later, if needed.
Cons: Space limitations. While Facebook messaging lets you send whole paragraphs of text, Twitter messaging is limited to 140 characters. That’s why Vergara might initially contact sources with an interview request via Twitter but later conduct the actual interview over the phone.
Instant message and social media can also fall prey to the same problem spelling and grammars issues as email, especially given the casual, abbreviated tone of typical IM speak.
Pros: Services like Skype or Google Hangout allow journalists to interview sources almost anywhere in the world without incurring long-distance phone charges. The simplest option is an audio-only interview. But Skype and Google Hangout also have video capabilities that can add more context to your interview than audio alone. “It’s nice to see someone’s face and easy to record,” said Grauer, who’s conducted several interviews via Skype. “I feel like I get a better interview because I can see people’s facial expressions.”
Cons: Of course, while most writers don’t stress about appearances for phone interviews, you may want to freshen up for a video interview. “I usually don’t put on makeup for phone interviews but I would for Skype,” Grauer said. Another potential downside is the technical issues that can interfere with the interview, especially if you or your source isn’t as familiar with the technology or has a spotty internet connection.
Ultimately, the Internet is a revolutionary tool for journalist’s that makes reporting and sourcing easier than ever before. You just need to use it correctly.
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