Getting tough on use of e-mail as a dodge

Mar 31, 2013 @ 12:01 am

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ike most news organizations, InvestmentNews runs 24/7. Gone are the days when reporters grabbed their hats and walked out of the newsroom at the end of an eight-hour shift — putting the story they had just filed, or the one they were still working on, far behind them.

These days — thanks to the rise of online journalism and the prevalence of smartphones and cellphones — journalists are always “on.” We are always talking to sources and always updating our stories with additional facts or comments.

Last week, for example, my online editor, John Goff, edited a breaking news story and then e-mailed that story to more than 66,000 financial advisers — all before 8 a.m. and all from his seat on a crowded commuter train.

While InvestmentNews' readers certainly benefit from our commitment to reporting real-time news, the speed and efficiency required to file and update stories constantly has led to an increase in the use of e-mail to gather quotes and context from news sources.

In fact, the e-mail interview has become a popular technique in newsrooms across the globe. It's easy to see why. With e-mail, reporters don't have to worry about playing phone tag with much-needed sources. E-mail also allows sources to provide reporters with well-thought-out and articulate responses to complex questions.

Reporters also like e-mail because it provides them with a written record of what their sources actually said.

Unfortunately, however, e-mail interviews are no longer being used solely for the sake of expediency. More and more, they are being used to dodge difficult questions and to spin a story's narrative.

In recent years, it has become increasingly common for public relations reps at large companies, trade associations and government entities not to make their executives available to journalists for face-to-face chats — or even for telephone interviews. Instead, they insist that the journalists e-mail them their specific questions, and promise to e-mail back a response from the requested source.

More often than not, you get back a canned, bland response. Sometimes the response completely ignores the question being asked.

Here's what I mean:

Reporter: “In light of the investigation by the SEC, has Company ABC revamped its policies concerning disclosure of fees charged to investors?”

Company ABC: “With $450 billion in investor assets and a well-deserved reputation for providing unparalleled service, Company ABC takes seriously the trust bestowed upon it by financial advisers and their clients.”

The problem with e-mail interviews — besides getting back responses that are totally unusable, as is the one above — is that often they are devoid of the candor and spontaneity that make for good conversation and compelling stories.

E-mail interviews are also less credible. After all, how can a reporter be absolutely certain that the person's name attached to a quote actually said it to begin with — especially if the quote is from a source that reporter has never seen or met and is delivered in an e-mail from a PR rep?

NEW RULE

In an effort to bring our readers the most compelling and accurate stories, I have asked our reporters to refrain from conducting interviews via e-mail. From here on, it will be our policy to request that all interviews be conducted face-to-face or over the telephone. If a source cannot — or will not — accommodate that request, we will make that clear.

Reporters, of course, still may use e-mail to gather information used in stories. But quotes from sources will have to come from face-to-face or telephone conversations.

InvestmentNews is not alone in revising its policies. The New York Times recently barred reporters from agreeing to allow sources to review quotes before they are used. E-mail interviews allow for implicit quote approval.

Of course, this is not a hard-and-fast rule. There will be times when the only practical way to communicate with a source will be via e-mail.

In those cases, we will make exceptions — with the approval of the editor overseeing the story.

If an exception is made, however, e-mailed quotes will be used only if they directly (and succinctly) answer a reporter's question and enhance the story. As always, InvestmentNews will continue to disclose to its readers anytime a quote is obtained any way other than a face-to-face interview or over the telephone.

Frederick P. Gabriel Jr. is the editor of InvestmentNews. Twitter: @fredpgabriel

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