As e-mail has evolved into the preferred communication path, fewer people need the handholding and guidance that was necessary a few short...
As e-mail has evolved into the preferred communication path, fewer people need the handholding and guidance that was necessary a few short years ago. Most occupations have customized the platform to suit their peculiar needs. Spies always use encryption, and lawyers add a little paragraph on the end threatening a lawsuit if you divulge this information. And if we are still making some of this up as we go along, instinctive behavioral decisions are generally correct.
Which is why I was a little surprised to see a lengthy piece in the current issue of American Journalism Review that examined the ethical and procedural issues that face journalists who use e-mail as a reporting tool. Author Kim Hart tackles the subject in some detail, taking more than 3,000 words to present various case studies and opinions about the topic.
Considering the source, it is all rather technical, and no one other than a journalist could wade through all this detail. What rises to the top for people who don’t work in the field, from my perspective, is the notion that an article that relies on e-mail interviews lacks spontaneity and warmth. Another pertinent question — which Hart doesn’t really answer — is whether readers need to be alerted whether a quote originates from a standard conversation or an e-mail message.
Additionally, there are several peripheral issues and questions: If someone sends along an e-mail as an interview answer that rambles on or misspells words do you edit and correct or quote them “exactly” and make them look stupid? And how do you know, receiving one of these messages, whether it originates from the source or someone else, such as an angry spouse?
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I hadn’t thought about these questions for a while. I’ll admit to a low tolerance for rules; the only journalistic guidelines I regularly follow are tell the truth and check the spelling. Beyond this, it’s all instinct. I usually indicate when a quote comes from an e-mail message, unless to do so would seriously impair the flow of the story. Perhaps this displays a certain conceit, that journalism is an art form that will suffer if there are too many distractions.
This piece tried to achieve a consensus but ended up all over the map. In fact, journalists don’t all think and act alike. A skilled writer covering a compelling story using only e-mail interviews may get killer results, while someone else with the same tools will need to meet their source for lunch in order to pull it together.
The Internet has also democratized the “art” of journalism. Anyone with a keyboard and a connection can “report” on events. Any good writer can get his or her message and viewpoint across, and the public can only benefit. That is, if they don’t blindly believe everything they read.
Where it concerns e-mail, journalism is like any other occupation. The technology is only a tool. Some reporters can adequately “cover” a meeting by reading an online transcript — a story about a city-council action doesn’t always need color or compassion. But a reporter — or a lawyer, or a spy — needs to use the right tools for the right job. Which in most cases, requires a certain degree of variety.