February 12, 2003

Vox Electronica

APME (Associated Press Managing Editors) is sponsoring a tactic designed to get more voices of ordinary people (as opposed to extraordinary public figures) into stories - email interviews.

Kent Warneke, editor of the Norfolk (Va.) Daily News told Editor & Publisher his paper sought email reaction from readers for a state budget story and received 58 responses. "It's a great way to get different names and people in the paper," said Warneke. "It takes time away from having to call and interview that many people."

Is this a good idea? Sure, email is efficient, but reducing even further the direct communication between reporters and sources doesn't seem like a step forward. It's bad enough that public officials and corporate officers increasingly ask for written questions from reporters so they can answer in formulated and vetted language. Now it seems that readers are being morphed into a pack of mini-pundits.

Consider these email responses the San Francisco Chronicle received recently when it asked readers: Will the change from yellow alert to orange affect your plans?

"The idea of soft targets is, I am convinced, irrelevant outside of large cities. .... Frankly, the high alert, combined with a lack of particularity, strikes me more as federal fear-mongering than a significant warning."


"As a basic philosophy I ignore any terrorist threat so vague and nonspecific as to be useless in daily life. Living in fear hands victory to vermin who are too cowardly to show their faces."

Or, when the Chronicle sought reaction to President Bush's State of the Union speech:

"He did not change my mind. I know the implications of letting Iraq off the hook. I know the implications of war. I don't like either of them. I am really caught between "Iraq and a hard place."

Iraq and a hard place? These read like (poorly written) letters to the editor, not spontaneous responses. Admittedly, "reaction" stories typically have little value. They are a random selection of quotes gathered from whomever a reporter could convince to answer a question before deadline, but at least they contain real voices and that is a basic goal of reporting - authenticity.

Anything that falsifies those voices and encourages already desk-bound reporters to spend more time in the newsroom rather than outside of it doesn't seem like a good idea to me.

 Editor & Publisher E-mail Delivers Sources for Newspapers

Posted by Tim Porter at February 12, 2003 08:55 AM