Building trust in news means forming thoughtful connections, not shaking opinions out of random pedestrians.
By Elise Czajkowski
I conducted my first significant man on the street interview in March of 2008, as an intern at the Manhattan bureau of BBC News. It was the day New York governor Eliot Spitzer was discovered to be a regular patron of call girls, and I was sent out into the evening rush hour to ask regular people what they thought of the news. This was before smartphone alerts and ever-present social media. Many people had only my quick synopsis of events as a basis for their opinion.
I remember that day vividly, but not for what anyone said, about which I can’t recall a word. What I remember are the nerves, and the feeling that I was intruding. Waiting for a train at Penn Station is bad enough without a college kid sticking a Marantz in your face. And I remember how it was used to provide “local color” for a radio audience thousands of miles away, in a way that was technically accurate but unavoidably shallow.
Man on the street interviews are also known as vox pops and, in academic circles, popular exemplars. They are a common form for bringing the “everyman” into a story, especially in broadcast news. They are a recognizable part of a newscast structure that, particularly in local news, often gets taken for granted.
I’m not the only journalist who has developed a dim view of vox pops. One study from 2017 found that 63 percent of journalists think they are overused, citing several examples of journalists’ disdain for a practice that involves accosting tired commuters at Penn Station.
Last summer, as I awkwardly loaded groceries into my bike’s saddle bags, a young woman approached me with a notebook in hand. She explained that she had just started a journalism program, and had been sent out to get quotes about a city council law that capped the number of rideshare drivers in New York City.
My first instinct was to beg off. I had no strong opinions, or even much knowledge, about the new law. But knowing how hard it was to be in her shoes, I smiled and agreed to give her my thoughts. Immediately, I could almost hear my mind whirring. What would be most helpful to her? What are the most important issues at play? Most crucially, what could I say that wouldn’t look stupid on paper?
And then I said something. I haven’t the foggiest idea what. But she smiled and nodded and scratched it down on her notepad. When she asked for my contact info, I knew that if I were ever called on to confirm my quote, I would agree to almost anything read back to me.
Man on the street interviews are predicated on the idea that asking randomly chosen people their opinions will yield their true, unbiased selves and perspectives. But for the person on the street, it’s less of a friendly exploration of ideas and more of a pop quiz. And with that comes the feeling that there are right and wrong answers.
It may seem obvious to journalists that sentiments like “I find this whole issue confusing” or “I don’t think this is problem is all that important” can be perfectly good sound bites for a vox pop. But for the person being interviewed, these can seem like failure, like writing “I don’t know” on an exam. Add the fact that these clips may end up being seen, heard, or read by the interviewee’s family, friends, and colleagues, and there’s a real incentive to scramble for the best sounding quote they can come up with, regardless of its connection to their actual opinion. Jimmy Kimmel uses this to great effect, with fake man on the street interviews that show people will lie to a person with a camera and a mic if they think that’s what the person wants to hear.
For the sake of balance, I would love to have an anecdote here about a particularly significant vox pop I once saw on TV. But I don’t have one. In fact, for all of the television, radio, magazine, newspaper, internet, and podcast news that I’ve consumer in my life, I can’t remember a single man on the street interview in detail.
It’s not to say that man on the street interviews don’t influence people. In fact, a 2012 studyfound that vox pop interviews influenced television viewers’ reaction to a story more than more knowledgeable sources. “Popular exemplars have the greatest impact on people’s own opinion,” according to a 2012 study published in the journal Communication Research. “This implies that journalists using this type of format in their items should thread carefully because the subsequent swings in opinion are substantial. Experts have a smaller effect on opinion; the effect of politicians in the news is insignificant.”
This study and others show that man on the street interviews can sway what people think about an issue, and what they think other people think about that same issue. But given their place in the regular template of broadcast news, the source of that information is just “the news”. A viewer may not remember why, for instance, they get the sense that a certain proposal is unpopular, but the feeling will linger, even if there’s no proof it’s true.
Vox pops aren’t doing anyone any favors. Journalists don’t like doing them, interviewees run the risk of looking stupid, and viewers can’t separate random opinion from authority. All these contribute to the weakening of trust in media, especially local outlets.
Journalists using vox pops are likely doing so because they need voices besides those of professors or politicians. But there is a vast world of possibilities beyond random people and professional opinion-havers. They are informed community members, people who have thought about issues carefully, come to conclusions, and updated their information as circumstances have changed.
For my Spitzer interviews, there was a logic to getting the reaction of the governor’s constituents; it was far from the worst use of a vox pop. But people with a vested interest in elements of the story surely would have had more to add than just surprise and confusion. What did Spitzer’s former volunteers think? What was the perspective of a therapist who deals with sex addiction? How did current and former sex workers see the issue? What were the feelings of government workers in Albany? None of these people are exactly “experts”, but their unique situations meant they may have been able to illuminate this issue more than someone waiting for the 6:20 to Oyster Bay.
Interviewing local community members is a great way for a news outlet to build rapport with a community. But any person being interviewed would rather be asked about a topic of which they have knowledge and opinions. If that journalism student had asked be about topical issues that I wanted to talk about, rideshare drivers wouldn’t have made my top 20.
And if I had been asked about a thing I cared about (say, bike lanes), I would have been more confident in saying what I actually believe, regardless of what would look best on paper or what I thought would help her article. I could have made a coherent argument that I felt furthered the discussion and that I would have been proud to have next to my name.
But the real reason to abandon man on the street interviews is for the audience. They (that is, we) are the largest group being affected by vox pops, with the most to lose. Vox pops are not and cannot be truly representative of a community perspective. The place and time of these interviews will exclude not just many people, but the many types of people who would never be in this place at this time. And each use of a man on the street interview calls to mind a slew of unanswered questions: Who stops to talk to a camera crew? What are the reasons someone might not want to be on the record? Who do journalists choose to approach? What criteria are used to decide who makes it into the final piece?
News needs people. Characters, narratives, and commentary are valuable elements of journalism. But by abolishing the man on the street interview, we force ourselves to dig deeper, to find a voice that represents a point of view rather than thrusting Jane Doe into the role of community spokesperson. Engagement means knowing that you have sources to call on deadline who will provide you with those characters. It means letting your audience bring their best to your community reporting. And it means trusting your audience enough to care that you’ve talked to the right person, not just a person.
Elise Czajkowski is a 2019 Tow Knight Fellow in Entrepreneurial Journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, and the Awl, among others. Find her on Twitter at @EliseCz
Production DetailsV. 1.0.1
Last edited: March 28, 2019
Author: Elise Czajkowski
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: Photo by Teun Swagerman on Unsplash