April 2015

Email interviews

Suppose, for a minute, that when witnesses came to court to testify, they didn’t have to answer their questions aloud.

Suppose instead that during examination and cross-examination they were supplied a written list of questions that they could then answer, also in writing, at their leisure.

It’s a good guess that a lot of light would not be shed on nefarious doings and a lot of truths would not be revealed.

Or imagine that students in a classroom could no longer raise their hands and seek clarification on something they didn’t understand. Instead, they would submit questions to their teacher via email and receive emailed answers, maybe the next day. It would be frustrating and time-consuming to have to wait for information this way.

For similar reasons, the Free Press has decided we will no longer conduct any interviews by email, nor will we supply interviewees with a written list of questions in advance.

This isn’t to say that emails won’t ever be used to exchange simple factual information, but as a replacement for (preferably) face-to-face interviews or phone interviews with those people to whom we wish to speak (to paraphrase Lily Tomlin), emails just don’t suffice.

In our rapidly evolving, high-tech digital world, many politicians, corporate bigwigs and people associated with just about any controversial issue now prefer to provide comments to the press via email. (To their great credit, the county commissioners in our area have never done this.) Then, after much pondering of these emailed questions, followed by consultation with colleagues and lawyers, they provide carefully couched, stale, formal replies that contain as little information as possible.

But this leaves much to be desired by the public wanting to know the truth of a matter.

Remember, the majority of communication is non-verbal. Written information can’t convey a person’s tone of voice, facial expression, or other cues that help us understand what someone means. Sarcasm, levity, anger, fear and so on are difficult to detect in emails. This can result in misunderstandings. Furthermore, email exchanges don’t allow for follow-up questions and spontaneous answers in real time.

It is reporters’ responsibility to be “fair and balanced”(as they joke on Fox News), and not to ask loaded questions even when the situation is clearly adversarial. That means not taking cheap shots or quoting people out of context or when they have misspoken. At this paper we take great care in maintaining this standard, and we believe a lot of people we talk to have come to trust they will be treated fairly when it come to news stories.

For the rest of those who refuse to talk to us directly, we will just let readers know they had “no comment.”