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What they don’t say when they speak through emails

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Technological advances have been great for journalists. We have the ability, today, to report instantaneously from remote locations, to provide decent quality video by virtually every reporter, to live Tweet breaking news events to keep our audience “live at the scene.”

And at the Times, we’ve invested to stay current. We have tablets and Chromebooks and notebooks and laptops that can hook remotely to our content management system, meaning we can send stories into our system as quickly as they can be typed, rather than having to bring the reporters back to the “mother ship” to write their stories. We have numerous devices that can shoot both still and video photos, in extremely high resolution.

All this combines for a more immediate and timely report, delivered on multiple platforms. We are no longer tied to our print product; with our social media feeds and website, we are as immediate as you can get. But all that can mean a lot less if we can’t deliver all the news of a particular story. And the technology that has so liberated us in other areas has constricted us in reporting our stories because email and text messages are proving to be extremely frustrating contact points to our sources.

On the surface, one might think that email transmissions would make our report more accurate, because no one can dispute the accuracy of a quote delivered by email. And when no other contact can work — say your source is in Nepal, with no reliable phone service but with an Internet connection, as an example — a series of emails can get the job done.

Sadly, we don’t have that many situations in which we need to interview a source in Nepal, or Diego Garcia. Nearly all our sources are in New York state, and the majority of them are in the north country. Yet, we have many people who request that we email them our questions, and they’ll get back to us.

Those that do, in many cases, do so because they have found this to be a convenient way to offer not-entirely-responsive answers, to provide “on-message” sound bites of very little value or to offer as a quote words that have been written by someone else.

I wrote a story this week about a Matthew A. Doheny campaign flier that contained false information about the Times. My contacts with the Doheny campaign were a not particularly satisfying combination of phone calls and emails. My contact with the Stefanik campaign, from whom I sought reactions, was entirely by email. In fact, efforts to get a voice associated with the Stefanik campaign has become increasingly difficult as the campaign has progressed.

And it’s not just campaign organizations that want to control their message so tightly that no actual words ever leave their candidates’ lips. Far worse, from the standpoint of the public’s right to know, are the responses of state agency “spokesmen.” I use the word in quotes because in more and more instances, these spokespeople never speak. They seek an email list of questions, they respond to any of them they wish to and they ignore those that make them uncomfortable, and our reading public often ends up with less public information from state government than they have a right to have.

I counsel our reporters to be persistent. To call early and often. To drive to a government office, if it is located somewhere near us, to seek a face-to-face meeting. Despite that, a reporter getting information from multiple sources, as we always demand, often finds that email responses provide an additional “voice” that adds to the story. And, as many reporters have pointed out to me, with some sources, it’s either an email exchange or no exchange at all — especially with state agencies.

But reporting, when it’s done right, is an endless uncovering of information. If you’re a good reporter, the answer to one question more often than not kicks up another question. And the answer to that may kick up yet another query. And so it goes. Except with an email exchange — that finite process stifles follow-up questions. It allows sound-bites and rote answers to supplant real information. It allows “speakers” to be spoken for by their hired flacks. It allows sources to provide answers that don’t really respond to the question asked.

In short, email interviews too often interfere with the reporting process, and too often interfere with the truth.

The rule that we follow at Northern New York Newspapers right now is, if a quote comes from an email, it must be designated as such. If an entire exchange is from an email, that must be adequately explained. That rule lets readers know that this quote might be tainted, which is important. But it doesn’t address the greater question of whether we should routinely be resorting to email exchanges in lieu of a voice-to-voice interview, or if we should place some restrictions on that as a news gathering resource. Our reporting staff is mulling the question, and I hope to find a place where we can establish processes and policies that answer the deficiencies of email interviews. If you want, I can send you an email on that.

Perry White is managing editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at 661-2351. (Or, if you must, at pwhite@What they ...)

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