Dear Dr Deadline 21-02-03

Dear Dr Deadline,

How valid is it to use e-mail as a means of interviewing contacts? My news editor says I can’t quote from an e-mail as though I have spoken to the source. Her view is that I must have actually heard them say any quotes I use and that e-mail comments can only be used as background. But with so many people using e-mail as a means of communication, this approach seems to be a little bit behind the times.

I tend to agree with you. E-mail is a conversational medium, so I would see no great difficulty in using quote marks followed by “he said” when quoting from an e-mail. The alternative is to use “he said by e-mail” or “he wrote in an e-mail” Ð a perfectly valid but somewhat clunky construction.

But here Dr D feels a note of warning is required thanks to a rather bizarre case he recently read about in the US. Reporter Dan Verton, who works for a business magazine called Computerworld, quoted extensively from an e-mail contact called Abu Mujahid in a story which claimed that a recent internet computer virus was set up by a group linked to Al-Qaida.

Unfortunately for Verton, Mujahid was not what he appeared to be at face value. In fact Mujahid was another journalist, Brian McWilliams, who had set up Mujahid as an identity to help him investigate stories on Muslim-related issues. He had registered the domain name “” which he was passing off as an organisation based in Pakistan. He hoped that the site’s message board would attract Islamic fundamentalists that would provide him with leads for other stories. His alter ego Abu Mujahid e-mailed that message board regularly.

Seeing the website, Verton e-mailed “Mujahid” and asked him a series of questions about the internet virus. McWilliams mischievously replied as “Mujahid” admitting the Al-Qaida link to the virus, and Verton published his answers at face value.

Now regardless of your views on whether one journalist should mislead another, the story does demonstrate how easy it can be to pass yourself off as someone else using e-mail.

And this is where your news editor’s approach could protect you. McWilliams would have found it much more difficult to pass himself off as a Pakistan-based muslim when in fact he lived in New Hampshire. If you make the effort to establish voice contact with your sources, you are much less likely to be open to such a hoax. n

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