Many veteran journalists
warn new freelancers and staff writers not to use email to interview
sources. Email interviews can be stilted, awkward, confusing (if the subject
isn't comfortable with writing), or even too polished. It's also harder to
have a natural conversation through email, which can restrict the direction
of an interview.
But there are times when an email interview is acceptable, or even a better
option than a traditional phone or face-to-face interview.
1. Avoid time zone conflicts. For one article, I had to interview a Peace
Corps member serving in Albania, while I was in Colorado. Trying to
coordinate a phone conversation given the timeframe would have been
difficult. Fortunately, my source was articulate in writing and could access
email a few times a week. The interview and follow-up went well.
2. Confirm complex information. When interviewing scientists, lawyers, or
other experts about complex topics, it can be helpful to conduct part of the
interview by email. Seeing the explanation in writing can help you avoid
errors. Email is also a good tool for confirming your understanding of a
telephone or in person interview.
3. Get background. If you know your verbal interview will have a strict time
limit, you can email the source a list of questions to answer first. This
can be a good way to get background that will ensure the interview flows
smoothly and you doesn't waste time covering basic questions.
4. Answer quick follow-up questions. Some sources are difficult to reach by
phone after an interview. Email works well for quick follow-up questions and
5. Interview writers. While many people are more articulate and "quotable"
in person, some people--like bloggers and other writers--may interview
better over email or an instant messaging program. Be careful using these
interviews--these people can sometimes be too polished in writing.
6. Interview a hearing- and/or speech-impaired source. I once received an
assignment (later changed) to interview a hearing- and speech-impaired
priest who lived in another state--in cases like this, email is often the
only practical way to get the interview done.
Telephone and face-to-face interviews offer gesture, tone, and flexibility
email doesn't--but keep email in mind as an occasional tool in your