Admittedly, I use written responses to queries/questions often in writing. To me it’s a way of getting the solid facts needed for a story and gives the source a chance to think through their responses. I’ve found that most of the time a written answer is more easily quotable and more factual than a telephone conversation.
Does it work for every type of story? No. The interviews where you need to dig deep and ask pointed follow-up questions in the hopes of catching someone off guard and getting the full truth need to be done in a person-to-person or at least voice-to-voice method.
To me, here are the benefits of written answers from sources:
- Facts, facts, facts. The source can verify the important facts and figures before sending them over. And in the reporting, a writer is less likely to misunderstand or misquote information.
- It values thought. When someone is writing out an answer they usually don’t fill a paragraph with nonsense. On the other hand when talking to someone, it is usually pretty easy for a source to wax on about a topic giving information that is neither crucial nor important to the story.
- It works with both schedules. Receiving written responses to queries can work in a reporter’s favor. Maybe the source doesn’t have time to dedicate to a 15-minute phoner, but who doesn’t have time to answer a couple questions with the blackberry that is attached at the hip all day long? Likewise for a reporter working on a number of stories at once this helps clear your schedule.
- Faster follow-up. After a phone interview you might have one or two small details you wish to follow up on. Placing a phone call to the source and then waiting for that person to call you back and hoping you are by your desk so you don’t begin a game of phone tag can be frustrating. With e-mailed responses it’s easy and time efficient to shoot an e-mail with a follow-up and have the source confirm or expand upon a particular point.
- It protects your reporting. An e-mail trail of the conversation can protect you with solid proof that the source told you something exactly as it is portrayed in the article. These e-mails are a gold-mine especially if a PR person calls upset about the piece, or your boss wants to confirm the facts before the story goes live.