Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Go Ahead Ask the Question in Writing

Yesterday, the Chicago Tribune's Eric Zorn posed the debate about sources answering questions in writing. His blog entry 'Let Me Ask You This Question In Writing' debates that a written response from a source isn't anti-journalism as some claim it to be. And I'd have to agree.

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.


  1. I always prefer written answers - period. When I have it in front of me in writing, it is clear and I can extract what I need for quotes, etc. Also as you pointed out, if you have a paper trail there is never any room for 'you misquoted me' or 'I didn't say that.' Um, yes you did..I have it right here.

  2. I agree. Plus I find the writing so much easier too. Copy and paste. Plus all their thoughts are already spelled out.

  3. I like it when clients agree to answer questions via email because it allows me, as a PR person, to review the answer before it goes out. So, from a journalism prospective, it's a double edge sword that allows the interview to be more sanitized. Just my two cents.