Should Reporters Record Interviews, or Just Take Notes?


I’m a journalism professor, and one of the questions I’m most often asked by students is this: “Should I record my interviews, or just take notes?”

It’s a good question, but one that reflects the insecurity journalism students feel when they go out to do their first interviews. Many are concerned that if they simply take notes they won’t be able to get down everything the interviewee says. So here are my thoughts on the pros and cons of notebooks versus recorders.

Notebooks: The classic reporter’s notebook is a time-honored tool of journalists everywhere, and for good reason. The reporter’s notebook is the ultimate low-tech, no-fuss tool, one that is totally reliable and yet portable enough to fit inside a purse or a back pocket. Professional reporters carry these notebooks with them wherever they go, not only for covering stories but for jotting down potential story ideas. As long as you always have a pen (or pencil) with you at all times, the reporter’s notebook will never fail you.

However, some journalism students worry that they won’t be able to take notes fast enough to capture everything a source says in an interview, which is brings us to recorders.

Recorders: Recording devices have come a long way. Decades ago they were bulky, cumbersome devices that had to be carried in a backpack slung over one’s shoulder. More recently, advances in micro-cassettes and then digital recorders have made such devices much smaller and easier to use. These days, anyone with a smartphone can download a recording app and easily record interviews that way. And of course, if you are creating a digital video news report you’ll need to be able to record good audio.

The downside with recording devices is that there’s always the potential for something to go wrong. Virtually every reporter who’s ever worked in the news business has a story about recording a long interview, only to get back to the newsroom and turn on the device to hear nothing but static. Also, some sources may balk at being recorded. And if you want to record someone during a phone interview, you have to get their permission first.

But the real issue of recorders versus notebooks has to do with time. Any time you record an interview, you have to go back and listen to the recording later in order to get the quotes you want for your news story. Some reporters will even spend hours transcribing long recorded interviews. That quickly becomes a real time-suck, especially if you are writing a story on a tight deadline.

So most reporters will tell you that when they are doing a deadline news story, they’ll stick to using the notebook. Even though the notebook is low-tech, it is, ironically, generally much faster to work with than a recorder when time is of the essence.

On the other hand, if you’re doing a story that doesn’t have a pressing deadline, such as a profile or some other kind of feature article, then you may prefer to use a recorder in order to capture all the nuances of the way your interviewee talks. Later, you can listen to the recording and, with the luxury of time, carefully choose the quotes you want to use.

But given the potential for recording devices to fail, I always tell students to take notes, even when they are using a recorder. (And if you are going to be doing interviews outdoors in subzero weather, always bring a pencil along. Pens freeze.)

As for concerns about not being able to get everything a source says, word for word, here’s a little secret of the news business: It doesn’t really matter. No one expects you to be a stenographer, and as long as you accurately capture the meaning of what your source says, no one is going to raise a fuss if you don’t get every “the,” “and” or “but” that they used in a sentence.

And if you are ever unsure about whether you got a quote right, just check it with the source to make sure.

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