Tuesday, October 24, 2006

How Do Phone and Email Interviewing Measure Up Against Google Talk? They Don't.

Rebecca Whipple and I conducted our "Languages of War" interview on September 21 at about 5 a.m. CST, which is about noon in Paris. It's the first interview I have ever conducted via the Gmail-embedded Google Talk client. I was inspired to try because of the limitations of both phone and email interviews, and wanted to see how using a chat client like Google Talk measured up against each of these formats.

Google Talk: The Blog Interviewer's New Best Friend

Telephone interviews are far too difficult, both logistically and in terms of available time, for part-time bloggers to conduct on a regular basis. The alternative, the email interview, generally feels less spontaneous and open-ended than a feature interview should be; sending list of questions means there is no conversational flow and no chance for shared information to shape the dialogue. But this has been the standard for interviewers who are short on time. It takes far less time to work an email interview into a final form, whereas telephone interview transcription can take a long time, time most bloggers don't have if they want to keep up with the blogosphere's running conversation.

The crux of the matter is that a good interviewer responds to their subject in a relational, non-scripted way. Many of us learn this the hard way; as a young A&E reporter in college I once interviewed Kurt Vonnegut with a set of tortured lit-crit "questions" and then impersonated a piece of petrified wood while he spend 45 minutes telling stories I'd already read in multiple interviews or even in Palm Sunday. He didn't follow my script, and when he ventured into well-worn territory, I lacked the skills to drag him back to new ground. An email interview simply forces an interview subject to submit to a bad interview, and there's little either party can do about it.

The chat client built into Gmail creates its own transcripts and stores them as emails. That means that with a little grep cleanup in a text-editing program (find/replace should work almost as well) I was beginning the real work of editing my artist interview within minutes. For many bloggers, this kind of time savings can make the difference between having the time to interview your most interesting subjects and not doing interviews at all.

Google Talk For Newsrooms?

When news reporters confront the heavy time requirements of features interviewing, their solution is to do a phone interview and jot down fairly detailed notes on their reporting pad, reconstruct their quotes later, and (if necessary) run them by the interview subject over the phone to make sure they haven't screwed anything up. This keeps them from having to do a lot of transcription, especially now, when newspaper transcription pools are a luxury of a bygone age. But the interview subject's voice is stripped out in this economizing. This doesn't matter in news reporting, but for a feature or in-depth interview or profile it can be a killer.

Google Talk bridges the gap between the convenience of an email interview and the natural, conversational style of a good phone interview. I find taped phone interviews to be as good as in-person interviews for Q&A formatted material (profiles really benefit from in-person interaction, which give the writer much to observe and record), but I'd recommend chatting as superior even to phone interviewing because all you lose is the tone of voice behind speech, and I think this is actually a good thing to lose. In conversation, variations in tone communicate a lot. The result is that printed quotes may distort a subject's view simply because that conversational data that was available to the interview has not made it onto the page.

Interestingly, the chat format preserves the exact conversation for both parties, which represents a shift in power from the publisher towards the subject - a shift that would be even more profoundly felt in a newsroom, where adversarial interviewing occurs every day, and thus creates an environment in which things are sometimes misinterpreted, misreported or denied, especially when the subject refuses to be recorded for the interview (a sure sign that they wish to reserve the right to deny later what they have said to the reporter). While this power shift does come at some cost to the publisher, it is one few could argue against, as it preserves, above all, the integrity of the interview. It protects readers, editors, and sources from bad reporting, and protects publications from fraudulent lawsuits. The only catch is that the transcript is web-generated, and in extreme cases reporters might find Google (or whatever transcript-enabled chat client they used) turning over their transcript to the government. If chat reporting became a dominant form of interviewing for publication, as I believe it should, this fact could alter the landscape of First Amendment protection for journalists as it is currently interpreted by the publishing community.

How Interviews Are Edited For Publication

Tomorrow I will post about the kinds of changes interviewers make to feature interviews which average readers may not know about, and the questions reporters face when editing interviews into a lively format with a good flow. I will also post a transcript of the raw interview I conducted with Rebecca Whipple, which interested readers can compare with the published Q&A. This will offer some examples of the kinds of changes and edits that I consider to be legitimate but which do "misrepresent," in the narrowest sense, the original conversation.


Lisa Hunter said...

This is an interesting topic. For my book, I interviewed a number of art experts, some of whom preferred to do it by email. This sometimes became a problem, when I'd ask an open-ended question and get back a one-word response like "Sometimes" or "Depends."

My husband, on the other hand, interviewed a number of television writers for his new book, Crafty TV writing, and found exactly the opposite. The writers were much better on paper than on the phone.

Jeremiah McNichols said...

Yes, and in a chat interview you can follow up the "sometimes" with "like when?" I used to think this was a sign that I had asked a bad question, but this is really not fair to the interviewer. Sometimes it just means that the person on the other end isn't trying very hard. And it is difficult to "draw someone out" in an email interview in the ways you might in conversation.

Of course, the interview subject needs to be willing to set an "appointment" with you to chat, which may counteract their reason for wanting to be interviewed via email - the convenience (for them). I think most people who are willing to be interviewed at all, however, should be at least somewhat susceptible to observations of what format will allow them to best express themselves.