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Interviewing: Notebooks vs. Recorders

Which is Better in Most Situations?

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Businessman using digital voice recorder
Seth Joel/Photodisc/Getty Images

It's an old debate among print journalism reporters: Which works better when interviewing a source, taking notes the old-fashioned way or using a cassette or digital voice recorder? Both have their pros and cons.

Notebooks

Pros:

A reporter's notebook and a pen or pencil are the time-honored tools of the interviewing trade. Notebooks are cheap and easy to fit into a back pocket or purse. They're also unobtrusive enough that they generally don't make sources nervous.

A notebook is also reliable - no need to worry about it running out of batteries. And for the reporter working on a tight deadline, notebooks are the fastest way of taking down what a source says, and of accessing his or her quotes when you're writing your story.

Cons:

Unless you're a very speedy note-taker, it's hard to jot down everything a source says, especially if he or she is a fast talker. So you can miss key quotes if you're relying on note-taking.

Also, it can be hard to get quotes that are totally accurate, word-for-word, using just a notebook. That may not matter much if you're doing a quick person-on-the-street interview. But it might be a problem if you're covering an event where getting the quotes exactly right is important - say, a critical speech by the president.

Recorders

Pros:

Recorders enable you to get literally everything someone says, word-for-word. You don't have to worry about missing or mangling key quotes from your source. Using a recorder can free you up to jot down things in your notes you might otherwise have missed, such as the way a source acts, their facial expressions, etc.

Cons:

Like any technical device, recorders can malfunction. Practically every reporter who's ever used a recorder has a story about the batteries dying in the middle of an important interview.

Also, recorders are more time-consuming than notebooks because a recorded interview has to be played back later and transcribed in order to access the quotes. On a breaking news story there just isn't enough time to do that.

Finally, recorders can make some sources nervous. And some sources may even prefer that their interviews not be recorded.

The Winner?

There's no clear winner. But there are clear preferences:

  • Notebooks work best when you're on a tight deadline.
  • Recorders are good for stories where you have time to transcribe the quotes after the interview.
  • So many reporters rely on notebooks for breaking news stories, and use recorders for articles that have longer deadlines, such as features. Overall, notebooks are probably used more often than recorders on a daily basis.

    But remember: Even if you're recording an interview, always take notes anyway. Why? The Murphy's Law of journalism says that the one time you rely solely on a recorder for an interview will be the one time the recorder malfunctions.

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