Text-message interviews with big-name sources are on the rise. But are they as authentic and transparent as boosters claim?
By Audrey Carleton
The advent of digital media has ushered in a range of new journalistic formats, each seemingly easier to digest than the last. The latest bite-sized story style is the text message interview: on-record conversations with celebrities, politicians, and other well-known figures, conducted with thumbs by direct message. Across the web, screenshots are the new transcripts.
Buzzfeed News is one of the larger names to adopt and fuel the trend, publishing a series of text threads in its presidential election newsletter, “The Stakes 2020.” Each week since August, Buzzfeed News editor-in-chief Ben Smith has released a series of screenshots with one democratic candidate, in which they discuss events on the campaign trail, their policy proposals and hobbies.
When asked why Buzzfeed has gone in so heavily for texting interviews, Smith pointed to the format’s “authenticity” and “transparency.”
“You see the total context,” Smith says. “You’re seeing the entirety of the conversation. There’s [nothing] off the record.”
Compared to other existing formats, like heavily edited written or television interviews, Smith says text messaging offers a unique and rare angle from which to view an interviewee.
“You get a sense of somebody’s personality from the medium,” Smith says. “It’s both a way to get a sense of their voice, oddly, in a way that I think you can miss in a written interview, or even in a stately television interview. There’s nothing less natural than sitting down in padded chairs in front of a bunch of cameras and lights wearing makeup to have a conversation.”
Neon Magazine, a French publication, has run text-message screenshot interviews with celebrities in print and online since 2016, staff writer Armelle Camelin estimates. She says the format provides a sense of intimacy that traditional Q&As do not.
“We are constantly texting and feeling emotions while having a text message conversation,” Camelin said. “I was convinced that it could be a lot more intimate than a regular interview in person.”
Camelin says this sense of intimacy emerges from the organic way that text conversations tend to play out. Rather than sitting down for a discussion that can feel forced, she asks each interviewee for a few moments once every few hours over the course of several days, much the way people communicate with friends and family. She says audience feedback on the format has been positive, with readers saying the articles give them “a glimpse of the real life of those famous people” and “the feeling they were, themselves, sending the text messages.”
“A text message interview is more sincere, and honest, because the interviewee answers while [they’re] in a cab, before going to bed, when [they’re] getting prepared before the show. Short moments, shorts texts, a lot of spontaneity,” Camelin says.
But how can journalists and readers be sure that text interviews are living up to their promised authenticity, transparency, and intimacy? Though they may sound off the cuff and relatable, we can’t see what’s happening behind that message thread. The messages could be the result of a series of difficult, undisclosed exchanges with a celebrity’s agent, or a politician’s head of public relations. Camelin says that organizing text interviews with celebrities is often difficult and comes with conditions, such as windows of 24 to 48 hours during which the subject is available to answer questions.
She points to one experience in which an agent told her their client would only agree to do the interview if it took place over one hour, via the agent’s phone. “I said ‘no’,” Camelin said, adding, “We receive more ‘no’s’ than ‘yes’” to the idea.”
While both Smith and Camelin ask subjects to send quick, in-the-moment selfies to verify their identities, there’s no way of confirming that the person they’re talking to isn’t surrounded by a huddle of PR staff guiding their every answer — or worse, that a PR person isn’t the one responding to the questions and simply supplying a sample selfie they received from the interviewee separately.
Aileen Gallagher, associate professor at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University, says text message interviews constitute a type of performative authenticity.
“It looks very off the cuff and unrehearsed and organic, which is what you want in an interview,” says Gallagher. “However, there’s really no way of knowing how those interviews are done. I can’t imagine a candidate not doing that interview with their press person by their side. There’s definitely a performative aspect to it.”
The screencapping technique (as opposed to copying and pasting the interview into a different interface) also appears to give the reader an authentic, behind-the-scenes look at a conversation and everything that transpired around it. Smith says Buzzfeed tries, for the most part, to include all of each text thread in “The Stakes 2020.” He points to one interview in which he repeatedly asked Washington State Governor Jay Inslee for a selfie, only to receive a photo of a mountain.
Gallagher notes that the lack of timestamps on each thread make it impossible to know whether the conversation is edited or not — and while the format is notably harder to splice up than a standard interview, a quick photoshop can make anything look real. She says that one way of eliminating uncertainties around authenticity and transparency would be to conduct interviews in real time, with time stamps, through a video or the like.
“Some of those interviews have timestamps on them, some of them don’t,” Gallagher says. “That tells a lot about the [level of] authenticity or free wheely-ness of that conversation.”
While the text screenshot format is still a trend in its early days, Gallagher says the premise has existed for a long time. As early as 2005, sci-tech digital outlet Gizmodo ran instant-message transcripts as Q&A’s, a style that New York magazine (where Gallagher once worked) also deployed as early as 2007. In 2010, New York Eater ran an IM-interview (aptly called an “IMterview”), in which they interviewed renowned restaurant critic Robert Sietsema about his takes on a small local restaurant.
More recently, California Sunday Magazine has adopted a stylized version of the text-message interview. In an April article titled “Re: re: re: re:”, the outlet compiled samples from real conversations between subjects, conducted through letters, social media posts, and direct messages, and published them in an analysis of how communication takes place across physical barriers.
“We were, and still are, thinking a lot about the concept of borders,” says Joy Shan, associate editor at California Sunday. “A border can be geographic, political, ideological, linguistic, it can be huge and physical, or invisible to the eye. But even when people are separated by a border, communication continues to flow — especially now that there are so many different platforms and mediums through which you can keep up with people.”
Shan says she prefers the text message format for its ability to convey the range of emotions and events that occur in daily life.
“They capture the really momentous events in your life — getting a job, getting married — and also the most mundane ones — going to the store, eating lunch. People are chronicling their lives in real time,” Shan said. “Stories like this allow the reader to be privy to how that contradiction between the big and the small unfolds in one person’s life.”
The text message screenshot interview is a modern variation of age-old promises and attempts to provide readers with new levels of relatability and transparency. Whether it delivers on these promises, or proves illusory, remains to be seen and debated.
Audrey Carleton is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. When she’s not writing, she’s walking dogs and forgetting to water her plants. Find her on Twitter @audreycarleton1
Production DetailsV. 1.1
Last edited: October 17, 2019
Author: Audrey Carleton
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Illustration: News-to-Table / Pressland