A reader recently emailed the newsroom with question about our attribution policies that perhaps some of you have wondered about, as well. Specifically, he wanted to know why we found it necessary to denote when information gathered from a human source is obtained over email.
He wrote in part:
I'm wondering: Why do you (and other newspapers) go to the extra step of mentioning that a comment or statement was made by someone in an email? For example, in today's edition ... “they are spending their days pulling political signs,” Kubic SAID IN AN EMAIL. Why not simply, “Kubic said?” Why do you and others (including the NY Times) clutter the sentence with an explanation of how someone makes a statement that ends up as a quote? For the life of me, I don't understand that. Isn't journalism supposed to be about brevity and clarity with an emphasis on avoiding misunderstanding among even casual readers? ... As someone who studied journalism 50 years ago, I'm simply perplexed and wonder what it is that I'm missing. Have the laws changed that now makes such clutter necessary?
Your question regarding the notations about correspondence that takes place over email was forwarded to me. It is an excellent question, and you correctly note the journalist's need for brevity. Nonetheless, I'm afraid my response must begin by parting company with you on the notion that inserting “in an email” into attribution constitutes clutter.
To the contrary, those three words insert context about the nature of our interviews. (Certainly this correspondence will unfold differently over email than it would if you had called or dropped by my office.) It could explain a source’s stilted language or our inability to pose an immediate follow-up question. It might also be indicative of a public official who tries to keep media and the public at arm's length, which is the case far more often than you might imagine.
Along similar lines, we let the reader know when a quote comes from a news release, as opposed to an interview in which we posed a question. Granted, in some instances, such distinctions are small; in others, not every reader will care. Whatever the case, we believe we are obligated to be inclined toward full disclosure, and three words consuming 11 characters seems to me a good trade of brevity for context.
Thank you for reading and for taking time to write to us.
For brevity’s sake, I didn’t throw the laundry list of reasons we include such information in attribution, but there is at least one other good one — there’s always the possibility that the person you believe you’re corresponding with over email is not the author of the words you cite. That seems like something the reader should know. Along similar lines, alluded to in my response, email responses quite often can be “canned” responses or responses that have been approved by a supervisor. This can put them on par with news releases — and we typically note when information, particularly quotes, come from this sort of correspondence, too.
The town of Bluffton, for instance, all but refuses to do over-the-phone interviews and demands conversations be in person or by email. Responses to the latter are sometimes plodding, and I’ll not attempt here to guess why. Suffice it to say, answers almost certainly would be different, if only by small degree, were it easier to make a phone call for a quick answer to a point we seek to clarify.
The New York University Journalism Handbook for Students makes a similar case:
Email interviews can have their place. In certain circles — technology or in the blog world, for instance — many sources insist on e-mail interviews so they have a written record of what is discussed. In addition, email interviews can serve as an effective way to further clarify information from a prior in-person or phone interview, especially if data and highly technical information is being conveyed. But email interviews can create problems, too. How does a reporter know the person replying is who he says he is? All too often company publicists answer e-mail questions on behalf of their bosses or clients. Email answers often tend to be carefully scripted and thus not truly representative of what the source truly thinks.
Moreover, our practice does not seem far removed from prescriptions by academics and other news outlets — here, for example, is the advice of professional writer J.M. Willhite and and here is what a guide from the Reuters wire service says on the giving the context of a quote.