Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Calacanis v. Wired: Kerfuffle over email interviews

So a journalist for WIRED sends an interview request to Weblogs Inc. founder Jason Calacanis and asks for an interview. Calacanis responds that he'll do the interview via email, but not by phone. He's a busy guy, and he doesn't want to be misquoted. The reporter turns him down. Scripting.com's Dave Winer had a similar interaction with the reporter.

But this being the internet age, things don't end there. Calacanis posts on his blog that it's ironic that a technology reporter for WIRED won't conduct interviews over email. A WIRED blog writer responds sarcastically that WIRED is on top of cutting edge tech, and plans to begin offering RSS over telegraph soon. The unfortunately titled blog entry calls Calacanis "cowardly," for refusing to do the interview over the phone, although as many commenters point out, there's no evidence of his cowardice in the post.

Anyway, here's the thing. Some folks, particularly the ones who don't need to be quoted in the press in order to gain notoriety don't really like to be interviewed and misquoted. They're convinced that journalists sometimes twist their words to make them fit a story, take quotes out of context, or generally do bad things. Technically, doing an email interview doesn't change this, but it allows the interview subject to keep a copy of their responses and refute the article if they feel they're misrepresented. They can even post the answers on their own blog if they feel like it.

But as a journalist, I have at least two problems with email interviews.
  1. There are no follow-up questions
  2. You can't be sure you're getting honest answers
  3. Written responses make for bad radio
I tend to go into interviews with just a few prepared questions. Most of the interview is determined by the answers to those questions. I've conducted interviews that have lasted for an hour or longer without writing a single question down on a sheet of paper first.

Often when someone's telling a story or explaining something, their explanation will lead to further questions. You miss out on that if you're conducting an interview via email.

Sure, you could email back and forth until you're satisfied that you have answers to every possible question, but that could take far more time than any telephone interview.

And then there's a bigger problem. If a journalist wants to interview Jason Calacanis to get his thoughts about another blogger (as was the case in this particular story), and the questions are submitted via email, how does he know that Calacanis is the person responding to the questions? Calacanis could have sent the questions to that other blogger, had him write the responses, and then sent it back to the journalist. I'm not saying that Jason would have done this, I'm just saying journalists like to be careful.

Coming from a radio background, I can also say there's nothing more annoying than getting a written statement or a written response to a question. Generally corporations or politicians give out written statements in response to a lawsuit. They usually say something to the effect of "While we cannot comment on the subject of ongoing litigation, but we can say that our president has never intentionally done anything to jeopardize..."

In other words, it always sounds like the author has something to hide. It's even worse in radio, as the reporter has to read the written statement, and usually says something like "Corporation X declined to be interviewed for this story, but did issue a statement saying the company does in fact love rainbows, hugs, puppies, and kisses."

As for the larger question of being misquoted or having quotes taken out of context, that can be a problem. Print and broadcast space is limited, as are attention spans. In order to tell a good story, journalists need to condense their interviews into quotes and soundbites.

But the beauty of the internet is that space isn't really limited. So there's room for more transparency. Journalists can conduct lengthy interviews, wrap them into news stories, and then post the complete interviews online as a supplement.

If you're concerned that a journalist will misquote you, an email interview isn't necessarily the answer. But perhaps you could run your own recording of the conversation and post the interview online yourself. Audio recorders are cheap, or you could even give the journalist a SkypeIn number and record the conversation on your computer.

Update: The dispute has become the top story on Techmeme, and Michael Arrington has weighed in. He was the blogger originally being profiled, although he now says he wouldn't be surprised if the article got killed.

Update 2: Perhaps the most interesting development is that WIRED journalist Fred Vogelstein has now posted his entire email exchange with Calacanis. He eventually offered to tape the interview and send a copy to Calacanis, but insisted on not doing an email interview for exactly the same reasons Calacanis wanted one: because there's too much risk of misunderstanding the answers.

Calacanis has accepted the offer and will include the interview as part of his CalacanisCast podcast.

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