Q&A Quid Pro Quo

The Q&A has long been a journalism staple. During my years as a magazine editor, I assigned more than a few of them myself. But it’s different now, for at least two reasons: the dominance of e-mail as a form of communication and the spike in online journalism. Not only is the Q&A more prevalent than ever, but it’s also got a very different DNA.Why? Because the modern e-mail Q&A is unvarnished. In the old days (that is, 5 years ago), a reporter would call a subject, ask maybe 30 questions, take notes or record the interview, and whittle the conversation into a heavily edited 5- or 10-question Q&A. It was not much different than writing an article, but it was an article presented in a different format. The reporter still shaped the piece from head to toe: the order of questions, the tone and length of the replies, the selected omissions and emphases, etc.

But now, subjects are often sent by e-mail a list of questions to which they can reply exactly as they wish and generally live to see their words appear unaltered. For the journalist, this makes for pretty easy work: you come up with 5 or 10 or 20 questions, send them by e-mail, wait for the results, maybe follow up a bit, and click the “publish” button. (A journalist can even subcontract this work to readers, asking them to submit the questions.) For the subject, it’s a lot more work — you’re essentially writing the journalist’s article for her — but on the other hand, you have control over what you say (or, in truth, you now have control over what readers will read that you said). It’s Q&A quid pro quo.

So here’s the big question: how does the reader make out? I would argue that readers are the big winners. They get more content that, for better or worse, actually reflects what the subject is thinking. Is this trend good for journalism? I think so, if it’s not overused. Some topics are well-suited for the Q&A format, and if a journalist can devote fewer resources to those topics and more to the kind of articles that take more time, digging, traveling, interviewing, analyzing, and writing, then maybe it’s win-win.

I got to thinking about this because we’ve been answering a lot of these Q&A’s ourselves lately, including a harrowing but ultimately fun live one for the Washington Post website. I wouldn’t force even my own relatives to look at all of these, but I’ll post a few recent ones here. (Note that the same journalist, Larry Getlen, drew assignments from both Nerve.com and Bankrate.com, which strikes me as a legitimate mark of one man’s varied interests.)

Freakonomics Q&A’s in: The New York Times Magazine; The Washington Post; Nerve.com; Bankrate.com.


Anonymous

Do you now consider yourself an economist as much as a journalist? Do you see part of your role as helping shape the research and model(if not actually crunching the numbers) or do you still see yourself as the journalist writing about what economists are doing? I ask because in the Washington Post transcript you were referring to the future research that the two of you would be doing and also most of the questions in that transcript were posed to an economist not a journalist and you answered them as such.

Ted Craig

As a journalist, I completely disagree. E-mail has ruined the Q&A. When we did interviews over the phone, we could catch someone in an unguarded moment and they would say something honest or interesting. It may have been an insight or it may have just been a nice turn of phrase. Now everything is stilted and reads like a press release, because the PR department is often writing the answers. I'm not talking about "gotcha" journalism, but I am talking about doing a more accurate job of capturing who the interview subject really is.

Peter Dunphy

Sounds like, Mr Levitt, you may have been influenced by Axelrod and his theories on "The Evolution of Cooperation". Have you any big theories on the underlying connections between Economics and Evolution vis a vis incentives and cooperation?

Stephen J. Dubner

To Anonymous: No, I do not now nor will I ever consider myself an economist. That said, the interface between our two approaches is pretty broad: ask questions, surround a subject, look for data, interpret, present, etc. I certainly didn't mean to imply that I've joined the economists' guild merely as the result of having written about a few and with one. As Levitt and I continue to work together, the boundaries blur a tiny bit. It's a true collaboration, but the division of labor is pretty specific -- to us, at least.


To Ted Craig: I don't disagree with you at all, but if you're trying to get the nuance etc. that you want out of a piece, you probably don't do a Q&A anyway. I've never understood why so many journalists *want* to do them (aside from the fact that they're easy), because they inherently require a writer to cede most of their control and most of the joy of writing.

Read more...

frykitty

As someone who has been on the receiving end of both types of interview, I must say email is a *vast* improvement. I know some folks have set an email-only policy.

A phone interview too often leads to misrepresentation when the article comes out. That's just plain infuriating. If a journalist is looking for the "ha-ha crazy computer people" angle, there's little you can do to fend it off over the phone. I'd rather have my responses discarded if they don't fit, rather than have them twisted and edited to suit an agenda.

Jim McCarthy

Also, the Q&A by email style doesn't allow for follow ups.

That skill, which you see in great interviewers, often makes a fairly uninteresting interview into something extraordinary in what it reveals.

David Singer

As someone who's done a number of these over the past few years I'll chime in and say I prefer phone interviews every time. I get more detailed answers, have the ability to ask instant follow-ups, and I feel I often get a less political answers.

I not only see better results from phone interviews myself, but the responses I get from readers are more positive (and plentiful).

I think it's the process that lands me the better results: I record my Q&As and they are rarely edited for anything other than grammar and sometimes a re-ordering of questions. That's it. Nothing fancy, the answers are almost always better (compared to emailed responses) without editing and I have no reason to do anything else with them.

Anonymous

Great book, informative blog...

Do you think that there should be some qualifier that should be prepended to conclusions based upon the completeness of the data the conclusions are based on. For example, the conclusion of the data regarding what parents do or are has more "something" than the conclusion that the abortions have reduced the amount of violent crime (equally probable) but there seems to be more 'completeness' of the independent variables that drive the dependent variable. Much more seems to be potentially left out, due to understandable ignorance, in the abortion example than in the parents do/are conclusion. The "something" could be qualitative or quantitative.

Thanks.

Tom

Anonymous

This is one of the rare books that I read continuously to the end. My eyes grew tired reading this late at night but my mind kept me wondering to read one more page, and another. I'd like to read another Freakonomics (Part 2), dealing with other topics - jobs and outsourcing, terrorism & environmentalism, war & peace.

Anonymous

Do you now consider yourself an economist as much as a journalist? Do you see part of your role as helping shape the research and model(if not actually crunching the numbers) or do you still see yourself as the journalist writing about what economists are doing? I ask because in the Washington Post transcript you were referring to the future research that the two of you would be doing and also most of the questions in that transcript were posed to an economist not a journalist and you answered them as such.

Ted Craig

As a journalist, I completely disagree. E-mail has ruined the Q&A. When we did interviews over the phone, we could catch someone in an unguarded moment and they would say something honest or interesting. It may have been an insight or it may have just been a nice turn of phrase. Now everything is stilted and reads like a press release, because the PR department is often writing the answers. I'm not talking about "gotcha" journalism, but I am talking about doing a more accurate job of capturing who the interview subject really is.

Peter Dunphy

Sounds like, Mr Levitt, you may have been influenced by Axelrod and his theories on "The Evolution of Cooperation". Have you any big theories on the underlying connections between Economics and Evolution vis a vis incentives and cooperation?

Stephen J. Dubner

To Anonymous: No, I do not now nor will I ever consider myself an economist. That said, the interface between our two approaches is pretty broad: ask questions, surround a subject, look for data, interpret, present, etc. I certainly didn't mean to imply that I've joined the economists' guild merely as the result of having written about a few and with one. As Levitt and I continue to work together, the boundaries blur a tiny bit. It's a true collaboration, but the division of labor is pretty specific -- to us, at least.


To Ted Craig: I don't disagree with you at all, but if you're trying to get the nuance etc. that you want out of a piece, you probably don't do a Q&A anyway. I've never understood why so many journalists *want* to do them (aside from the fact that they're easy), because they inherently require a writer to cede most of their control and most of the joy of writing.

Read more...

frykitty

As someone who has been on the receiving end of both types of interview, I must say email is a *vast* improvement. I know some folks have set an email-only policy.

A phone interview too often leads to misrepresentation when the article comes out. That's just plain infuriating. If a journalist is looking for the "ha-ha crazy computer people" angle, there's little you can do to fend it off over the phone. I'd rather have my responses discarded if they don't fit, rather than have them twisted and edited to suit an agenda.

Jim McCarthy

Also, the Q&A by email style doesn't allow for follow ups.

That skill, which you see in great interviewers, often makes a fairly uninteresting interview into something extraordinary in what it reveals.

David Singer

As someone who's done a number of these over the past few years I'll chime in and say I prefer phone interviews every time. I get more detailed answers, have the ability to ask instant follow-ups, and I feel I often get a less political answers.

I not only see better results from phone interviews myself, but the responses I get from readers are more positive (and plentiful).

I think it's the process that lands me the better results: I record my Q&As and they are rarely edited for anything other than grammar and sometimes a re-ordering of questions. That's it. Nothing fancy, the answers are almost always better (compared to emailed responses) without editing and I have no reason to do anything else with them.

Anonymous

Great book, informative blog...

Do you think that there should be some qualifier that should be prepended to conclusions based upon the completeness of the data the conclusions are based on. For example, the conclusion of the data regarding what parents do or are has more "something" than the conclusion that the abortions have reduced the amount of violent crime (equally probable) but there seems to be more 'completeness' of the independent variables that drive the dependent variable. Much more seems to be potentially left out, due to understandable ignorance, in the abortion example than in the parents do/are conclusion. The "something" could be qualitative or quantitative.

Thanks.

Tom

Anonymous

This is one of the rare books that I read continuously to the end. My eyes grew tired reading this late at night but my mind kept me wondering to read one more page, and another. I'd like to read another Freakonomics (Part 2), dealing with other topics - jobs and outsourcing, terrorism & environmentalism, war & peace.