For the record: 18 journalists on how—or whether—they use tape recorders

In early February, Jill Abramson told The Cut that she had never recorded an interview in her decades-long career as a journalist. “I’m a very fast note-taker,” she said in a staid Q&A that generated a mudslide of online criticism from those who took Abramson’s admission as evidence of recklessness. That she was accused, the next day, of plagiarizing passages in her new book on the media industry, Merchants of Truth, only added to the impression that the former executive editor of The New York Times plays it fast and loose.

Putting aside the issue of plagiarism, the truth is that, depending on the circumstances, many journalists do not record their interviews. That isn’t to say it’s the norm, but interviewing practices vary, primarily because journalism, unlike law or medicine, is an intuitive profession that requires no formal training (for better or worse).

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How journalists memorialize their interviews seems to be divided, in many ways, along generational lines, with older reporters relying more on their notebooks and younger reporters clinging to their recording devices, which were once clunky and somewhat forbidding but came into wider use around the end of the 20th century with the advent of digital technology. But it also depends on the person. Gay Talese, for example, is vehemently opposed to tape recorders—and views their widespread use as the death knell of literary reportage—while E. Jean Carroll prefers to videotape her interview subjects with her smartphone so she can capture facial expressions, which often serve as psychological tells.

Below are testimonials from 18 journalists. Most of these testimonials came via email; some are excerpts from phone interviews, which were not recorded. All have been edited for length and clarity.

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Kara Swisher

Editor-at-large, Recode; contributing opinion writer, The New York Times

I both take notes and record now unless very brief. It’s just safer and better for all to memorialize it in audio.

 

David Weigel

National political correspondent, The Washington Post

I have a Sony recorder now and an iPhone, and if I sit down for an interview and it’s on the record, I usually have both recording, especially since, if anyone has an iPhone, they know spam callers who promise you a free vacation can interfere at any time.

 

Gustavo Arellano

Features writer, The Los Angeles Times

When Jill started getting rained on for her note-taking philosophy, I thought to myself, “What’s so wrong with that?”

I almost never record interviews. I feel it’s a crutch that too many reporters depend on, and one that prohibits them from actually listening to what the person is saying because they figure it’ll all be on tape, so why bother to pay 100 percent attention? I also don’t trust technology, and am always paranoid that the interview I recorded will somehow disappear.

I’m with Jill on note-taking—I’m a very fast note-taker. And in my 17-year career as a reporter, not once has anyone ever complained that I misquoted them.

 

Hannah Dreier

Immigration reporter, ProPublica

When I’m working on an investigation and a source says something really damning, I do the same thing Abramson describes, and wait a few beats to write it down, to try to keep the person from getting spooked. That’s actually one reason I do use a pocket recorder (and sometimes my phone also, as a backup)—I don’t want to have to telegraph what I’m finding useful and what I’m not interested in. I find that sources are really tuned in to when I write in my notebook, and sometimes I write things down just to try to manage how people are feeling about how the interview is going. Sometimes my notebook is more of a prop, because I know everything is being recorded and I can pull a transcript later.

I don’t usually record people who are talking to me on background, or who are giving me tips on the understanding that their name won’t be used, because I find that recorders really scare nervous sources. But then, I’m never going to quote those people, so I don’t need an exact transcript of their words.

I’m usually more casual about recording when I’m doing more hang-out style reporting, and just following a person through their day. But I worked with magazine fact-checkers for the first time last year, and found that it was really helpful to be able to give them recordings.

A few people denied ever having talked to me, or denied saying what they said, and we probably would have had to cut that material if I hadn’t been able to give recordings to the fact checkers. So now I try to record whenever I can, unless there’s a powerful reason not to.

 

Astead W. Herndon

National political reporter, The New York Times

I record almost every phone call using an app called Automatic Call Recorder, which also is attached to a transcription service. Even when I record I often take notes so that I know which sections of the tape to come back to, or if I’m working on deadline it’s a way to keep moving quickly. The app sends me a rough transcription of the phone call about five minutes after it’s completed.

If I’m in-person I’ll use my phone as a recorder, and usually let the person know it’s on. I’ll also jot down notes and important times by hand. I don’t use a recorder for some person-on-the-street stuff, but in those instances I almost always go over the person’s quote with them, since they usually have less media literacy and I would not want a person to be surprised.

 

Bryn Stole

Investigative reporter, New Orleans Advocate

It’s nearly always my preference to record any conversations I have while reporting, but there are a few circumstances where I don’t, either because it’s not possible or not preferable.

On Capitol Hill, I almost never see reporters carrying pen and pad, and sticking phones or recorders right in a politicians’ face is entirely expected and acceptable. But that’s not always the case in other circumstances.

I try to always record politicians and other officials and review their quotes by transcribing tape. That’s because those sources strike me as the most likely to challenge a quotation—and because spokespeople often sit in on those interviews and record on their end as well.

But there are circumstances when I might prefer not to record. While working as a crime reporter, I’d approach bystanders, witnesses or relatives at a crime scene. I’d visit grieving families the next day in their homes. I’d try to chat up police officers whose department policies forbid talking to me. Immediately pulling out a recorder and putting it in their face can sometimes be intimidating, adding a degree of tension to a conversation or shutting down a potentially illuminating voice, in ways a simple pen and pad isn’t.

I can write quickly and am confident in my ability to accurately summarize a conversation in written notes. I trust that most reporters are able to do the same with some practice. If I’m not recording, I try to listen to shorter quotes—ones I’m sure I can jot down quickly and accurately—and otherwise paraphrase what someone said in an interview. If I’m not entirely confident in the accuracy of a quotation, I’ll summarize and won’t put quotation marks around it.

And then there are some situations where it’s actually impossible to record. Federal and Louisiana state courts prohibit audio recordings and obtaining a transcript of proceedings is often prohibitively expensive even in the few circumstances it’s possible. Federal courthouses in particular usually prohibit electronics inside, period, meaning you’ll have to lock your recorder in the car and usually rely on a pen and pad even for hallway interviews with lawyers, witnesses and relatives. If a reporter isn’t comfortable relying on notes without a recording—and doesn’t invest the time in building those skills—how are they supposed to be able to cover trials and court proceedings?

 

Rex Reed

Film critic, New York Observer; author, Do You Sleep in the Nude?

There was a time, early in my career, when I really had a photographic memory and I didn’t need anything more than notes. I still have steno pads full of notes on interesting people I interviewed, including the subjects of long magazine-length pieces. But as I grew older, my memory grew less dependable and I started using tape recorders. They were clumsy, inconvenient and a big bore to drag around and listen to for hours, and I also kept running out of tape at the most crucial moments.

Also, there were instances in which interviewees objected to their use. Cantankerous Jerry Lewis pulled out his own tape recorder to record me while I recorded him. For my now famous Esquire piece on Ava Gardner, which Tom Wolfe reprinted in his book The New Journalism, she forbid  me to use a tape recorder at all, so I had to keep continually racing to the bathroom to jot down her most pungent quotes, prompting her to ask, “What’s the matter, baby? Got a bladder problem?” But in retrospect I am grateful for the strategy of taping interviews because I now have irreplaceable conversations between myself and people that I treasure. What fun to replay verbal ping pong with Audrey Hepburn, Tennessee Williams, and Bob Hope.

 

Bijan Stephen

Features reporter, The Verge

Basically, my process is offloading all the memory work to a device, which is usually my iPhone, and I take backup notes by hand with my notebook.

I don’t delete anything I don’t have to. And for larger projects, I create a specific Google Drive folder with recordings, pictures, and drafts. Never delete, homie.

 

Elizabeth Spiers

Founder, The Insurrection

I record whenever it’s possible, and when I can’t, I generally won’t quote people directly unless I’ve confirmed exact wording during the interview. The only exception is when I’m gathering background info, and then it’s because I know I’ll do a follow-up interview about anything I want to use and re-confirm at that point.

I don’t have a set period of time. They’re all digital at this point and in the cloud, and I don’t really have any compelling reason to delete them.

I think journalists have a responsibility to be as accurate as they can, and a reasonable person knows that memory is fallible and that notes that aren’t perfectly transcribed can be unintentionally misinterpreted later. If you’re trying to do your job well and with integrity, why take the risk? I think saying you can’t always record is reasonable; but never recording on principle because you think you don’t need to is just hubris.  

 

Seth Lipsky

Founder and editor, The New York Sun

I record very little. Maybe a dozen times in my career, which goes back to 1962. I’m a very slow note-taker and only write down things I’m sure of. I put within quotes only material as it was actually said. I find that sifting process—putting within quotes only phrases or short sentences I’m sure I got right—makes me really wait for the pith.

 

Yashar Ali

Contributor, HuffPost and New York

I always record on-record interviews. No exception.

I will record interviews on background or off record only with the permission of the subject. Some say yes and some say no.

But on-record interviews are always recorded and obviously they either see me turn on the tape recorder or I tell them I’m about to tape record.

Would never ever delete recordings. EVER!

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Amanda Petrusich

Staff writer, The New Yorker

I always record my interviews, and I truly can’t think of a single reason not to—ideally, two digital recorders, in plain sight, with fresh batteries in my pocket. I might jot notes on a notepad if there are things I want to remember about the location, what someone looked like, the weather, the feel of the air; I might excuse myself to go the bathroom, and then desperately thumb out two paragraphs on my phone. But those are impressions, details, ideas—not quotes. Memory is so deeply, hilariously fallible. I know there’s been some talk of reporters eschewing recorders in order to make a subject feel “comfortable”—I’m not sure that’s a reporter’s job, exactly, but regardless, I find that frantically scribbling notes is infinitely more distracting than a digital recorder quietly sitting on the table. Also, in my experience, part of being a good reporter is training yourself to listen intently and carefully—to listen more fully than you usually do—and I couldn’t possibly do the difficult work of listening well and deeply while also simultaneously trying to write a bunch of stuff down.  

If it’s not a traditional interview situation—if, say, I’m spending a lot of time with a subject, and some conversations are happening between the formal sit-downs—I’ll still try to to keep a recorder on me, and I’ll pull it out whenever someone starts saying something interesting. That can be a little jarring for a subject, but whatever, they know what I’m there to do. I can see how there might be a situation where you simply cannot access or use your recorder for some reason, and if that happens, well, okay, I’ll take a note—but for me, that’s an exception. It makes me nervous to think I might accidentally misrepresent someone’s language. I’m okay with extrapolating meaning from an interview—drawing conclusions that the subject might not agree with—but being misquoted feels violent and awful.

I also find the audio document of an interview to be really useful later, when I sit down to write—there are all these little tells it’s hard to notice in the moment, because your adrenaline is going, you’re locked in, you’re hyper-focused on the arc of the conversation. The way someone pronounces a word, the timbre of their voice, a pause, a strain, a lightness, a darkness, whatever—that stuff is grist for the mill, too, and it’s easy to miss. Also if I didn’t have to do the excruciating work of transcribing my own interviews, I don’t think I’d learn as much from my own mistakes. I can’t think of a better way to improve as a reporter than by having to listen to yourself fumble an exchange, or ask the wrong follow-up, or let something important go. It’s really useful training!

I’ve got several shoeboxes full of those mini-cassette tapes crammed under my bed. With digital recordings, I usually back them up to a hard drive and forget about them. I’m admittedly not great at organizing or archiving digital materials, but I have yet to purposefully delete interview audio; I guess I figure, ‘You never know.’ But interviewing is only a small fraction of my job—I would totally understand a beat reporter routinely cleaning house.

 

Lizzie Johnson

General assignment reporter, San Francisco Chronicle

I usually record my interviews, but I don’t always listen back through the whole thing. I’ll take notes by typing on my laptop or jotting things down in a notebook. If there’s a particular quote I want to use from someone, I’ll reference the time stamp on the recording. I go back later and listen to that snippet, just to make sure I’m accurately quoting the person. But for numbers, figures, general information, et cetera, I don’t usually go back through the entire recording and will refer to my notes. I don’t have a system for how long I keep recordings for. Some of mine from years ago are still saved on iTunes. Others get deleted when I get a new iPhone.

 

Clyde Haberman

Former reporter and columnist, The New York Times

If I remember correctly, Truman Capote said that he took no notes—and certainly did no recordings—of his interviews for his classic book In Cold Blood. I never understood, or even believed, that. It’s hard for me to believe that anyone can remember huge snatches of dialogue, regardless of how smart he or she may be.

So, indeed, I always use a notepad and pen. In general, though, I too prefer not to use recording devices. It’s certainly not necessary all the time, especially if you’re not going to be quoting someone verbatim at length. For some interview subjects, the presence of a recorder can be inhibiting, though the devices today are smaller and thus less intrusive than in the past. For the most part, recording routine interviews can be a pain. You then have to play back the conversation, and that is time-consuming and especially unhelpful if you’re right on deadline.

There are exceptions. I always record conversations when I know I will be quoting a person at some length, as I have in personality profiles and the like. And I’ve done my fair share of interviews, both in this country and as a foreign correspondent, with presidents, prime ministers, and other top officials. I almost always have used tape recorders in those situations. The last thing any reporter wants is to misquote a government leader—or, perhaps more likely, miss a nuance—with the possibility of its producing unfortunate consequences. There’s an element of self-protection as well. You don’t want officials unhappy with an article to claim they were misquoted, when they were not.

Some I’ve erased fairly quickly, others I’ve kept, though why I did so isn’t always logical. I have consciously held onto a few interviews that I’ve done with people whose advance obituaries I wrote—and who are still living. But generally there’s no pattern to my recorded interviews in terms of how long to hold onto them.

I will admit to times when quotes that I wrote down in my notebook didn’t precisely match what was on the tape. Not that I misunderstood the essence of what the person said—not at all. I’m not talking about distorted meanings. But sometimes when I checked the tape, I saw that what I had in my notebook did not match it word for word. Perhaps the person said “wouldn’t” and I wrote down “would not”—simple mistakes that did not alter the basic accuracy.

It’s an argument against assuming that even the fastest and most assiduous note taker is going to get everything down on paper with absolute precision. It seems impossible to me. It always has been, and frankly, I think it’s more unlikely than ever as I get older and my memory frays a bit at the edges.

 

E. Jean Carroll

Advice columnist, Elle

I have a storage space in Warwick, [New York], and half that storage space is filled with old tapes, box after box after box of tapes. It’s just incredible—I lived by my tape recorder. And now, my most recent story, called “Miss Jean’s Wild Ride,” now, I only do video. I have found that people love to perform in front of a camera—love it! … To me, this is the Roger Ailes school of journalism. It’s more important how you look when you’re talking than what you’re saying.

 

Barry Newman

Former report, The Wall Street Journal; author, News to Me: Finding and Writing Colorful Feature Stories

I used cassette recorders very rarely for the first 30 years of my career. My interviews were usually face-to-face, especially in 20 years overseas, often with interpreters. When people you interview watch you take notes, they seem to give you a chance to keep pace with their talk. Taping wasn’t necessary.

When I got back to the US in 1997, the digital recorder was becoming cheap and easy. I began using one for long, complicated interviews, usually over the phone. These interviews were largely informational and technical, with lawyers, doctors, scientists, executives, flacks. I wasn’t using them to fish for talking-head quotes, but to prepare myself for getting out of the office to meet my real subjects, and to hunt for scenes and incidents. I transcribed those recordings and found them invaluable for sorting out the complexities of things like immigration law. Without those transcripts, I guarantee I would have made many more mistakes than I did.

 

Nancy Jo Sales

Magazine journalist; author of The Bling Ring

I record everything and I take notes as well.

Recording is important to me not only for accuracy but for giving the tone and flavor of the person’s use of language. Since I interview a lot of teenagers, I like to get the exact diction and rhythms of their speech, which you can’t do as precisely with notes.

I also take notes to remember facts and feelings. Now that there are iPhone cameras I also take pictures of subjects (if it’s OK with them) so I can remember what they’re wearing or how their home looks.

iPhone recordings I keep forever; you just store them on your computer. When I used cassette tapes I had a huge box of them. I had a small apartment and they took up a lot of space. So for the ones that were 10 or more years old, I just chucked them. I still have the transcripts, of course, but I’m really sorry I threw out the tapes. Some of them were Donald Trump (who knew?), Gwyneth Paltrow … should have kept them even as kind of professional keepsakes.

 

Gay Talese

Literary journalist and author of several books, including The Kingdom and the Power

I loathe tape recorders. I never owned one and do not even know how to operate one. I also never owned a cell phone. I don’t want to talk to people on the telephone. I want to see them up close, face-to-face, and listen patiently and respectfully while noting their gestures and other signifying signs of how they feel and think. I often ask them, once I’ve gotten to know them, “What were you thinking when you did such-and-such?,” and it is amazing how often they reveal themselves in interesting and intimate ways which I will later paraphrase in my written account. I often paraphrase, rather than use a direct quote, because people rarely speak in full and clear sentences and, as a writer (yes, a good reporter must also be a good writer!) I believe I can be more honest as well as readable when I use my own language in telling the story rather than surrendering to the verbatim and often stilted language caught on a recorder. … I fear that the new technology has turned today’s young journalists into lazy professionals who invest too much of their time sitting behind their laptops and staring down into their smartphones instead of hitting the road and spending great amounts of time in person with a variety of different kinds of people whose thoughts and stories demand being told more than they now are. Reporters must be storytellers, skilled and deep-digging researchers whose ambitions should rival the artistic goals of novelists and short story writers and yet hold true to the highest standards of accuracy and verifiability.

I often ask the same question at least two or three or four times. Why? Because I want to be sure I understand the full meaning of another person’s feelings and viewpoints. I jot their words down on strips of cardboard (shortboard) that I cut to fit in the breast pocket of my jacket. When I write something down, I sometimes show it to the person I’m interviewing, and I say: “Look at this. This is what I just heard you say. Can’t you be more clear? Can we go deeper here?” I might then pause, and if the person seems reluctant to go on, I might say, “Look, I don’t mean to be difficult. But what you say for the record is very important. And you yourself are more important than perhaps you think you are. Many, many people are interested in your point of view, and I’m trying to do the best I can as a writer and reflector of your private world and how you represent it in the larger world that surrounds us.”

Tape recorders—which came into prominence when I was a daily reporter on the Times in the late 1950s—have ruined the art of magazine writing. The recorder has introduced the Q&A interview into modern magazine writing. The result? The writer has forgotten how to “listen”and ask the same question repeatedly (as I do), and surrender to the person who is the subject of the piece—that is, the movie star, or other celebrity or politician, have taken over the article. What they say (not the writer’s “voice”) has become the essence of the article. The writer today lacks stature. It was not that way when I began writing for magazines—along with Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Joan  Didion, et al. Sadly, the journalist today is, more often than not, a stenographer. Thanks, tape recorder!

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Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Slate.