Let’s say goodbye to the man on the street

The plural of "uninformed individual" is not "collective wisdom."  (Icon made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com is licensed under CC BY 3.0; color added)

The plural of “uninformed individual” is not “collective wisdom.” (Icon made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com is licensed under CC BY 3.0; color added)

The voice of the people is the voice of God, says the proverb — in Latin, vox populi vox Dei. Hence the term “vox pop” used by some in broadcasting for a reporting method also known as man-on-the-street (MOS) or man-in-the-street. Balderdash, says I. Vox populi vox ignorantiae: The voice of the people is the voice of ignorance.

Thus the first of my resolutions for 2015 as I prepare to teach first-year classes in news writing and reporting: No MOS, no mo’.

MOS reporting is just what it sounds like: The reporter accosts random individuals in public to ask a consistent question or set of questions.

Jamie McIntyre, on his former blog Journosaurus Rex, provided this critique:

In its worst forms, MOS can be a highly subjective sampling of uninformed opinion that adds little context or real understanding to your story. But used thoughtfully, in conjunction with solid reporting, it can also provide a vivid illustration of how the public is viscerally reacting to a hot-­button issue of the day. MOSes are most effective when used to illustrate findings that are documented by scientific polling using unbiased questions, random sampling, and adjusted for standard margin of errors. They are also useful when popular sentiment is clear, or somewhat uncontroversial, such as illustrating elation after a hometown sports win, or sadness at a national tragedy.

The only thing I’d edit in that passage is to change the word “worst” to “most common.” Take, for example, the idea of vividly illustrating “how the public is viscerally reacting to a hot-button issue.” Done professionally and thoughtfully, this can produce something not only of immediate interest but also of historical value, like the MOS conducted by field workers of the Archive of American Folk Song soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But thought is not, in my experience, a major contributor to newsroom decisions to seek MOS. (Yes, the term is sexist. But let us be thankful that we are not using an acronym for “person on the street.”)

In May 1981, I was sitting with several other reporters in the Saginaw diner we not-so-fondly called Cafe Char-La, home of the ground bologna sandwich, when the easy-listening radio music was interrupted to tell us that Pope John Paul II had been shot. The same thought flashed through the minds of all of us at the table: Just how long could we extend our lunch hour? Sadly, not long enough. And so some of my colleagues had to trudge out to local Catholic churches, track down the rare parishioner around at midday (priests, of course, would be far too knowledgeable to count as common folk) and ask them for their reactions to an event they knew little, if anything, about.

At least those reporters were asking about an actual event that people might care about. I spent gray, rainy mornings in Saginaw’s deserted downtown button-holing passersby to to ask about things like shifts in tax policy.

As far as documenting opinions first with scientific methods and then finding quotes to illustrate the trends? I’ve seen it done — but more often, I’ve seen it done based on surveys that are no more scientific than the MOS itself. And if popular sentiment is clear, I wonder, why do we need an MOS to prove it?

David Weinberger, criticizing some NPR election coverage in 2012, summed up the classic MOS:

We learned that there’s this one old guy who likes Ryan because he has good values and likes America. We learned that there’s another old lady who is worried that the Republicans will weaken Medicare. Then, we learned that there are other old people with other opinions.

That is, we learned nothing. There was no statistical significance to the interviews. There were no particular insights. The most significant lesson we could learn is about what the editors at NPR think are interesting, balanced sound bites.

There are three levels of badness of “man on the street” interviews. At level one, they are journalism at its laziest. At level two, they’re ways to smuggle in opinions that the journalists are afraid to express. At level three, they’re conscious attempts to manipulate opinion through selective editing.

Alas, the MOS is entrenched in journalism, often a form of hazing for new hires. It’s been around so long, in its many misuses, that most journalists believe it must have value. Only when they can be made to look at it anew can they recognize its flaws. I saw this in the reactions of my colleagues to the Twitter roundup. It’s standard operating procedure now: Something big happens, websites report it. Then they squeeze out another Google-baited headline by rounding up reaction on Twitter.

As I taught this practice to The Plain Dealer newsroom (mea maxima culpa!), I met much resistance. Relax, I told the doubters; it’s just the modern equivalent of the MOS. Even as I offered that explanation, it struck me that I was speaking the absolute truth. Where the reporters could not see the problems with this approach until it was presented to them as something separate from the journalistic canon, I could not see the worst of the Twitter roundup until I could recognize it as my old enemy in a new costume. (Not all Twitter roundups are bad, just as not all MOS are evil. But like matchbooks, you have to be very careful about how you use them.)

I first encountered the MOS in journalism school. I suspect that’s true of most of us in the craft. And I encountered it in its worst form: We were sent out to grab random students and ask vague questions about non-urgent issues. I’ve talked to other professors about this since, and they offer plausible reasons for still using the MOS: It’s a way to ease students into talking to strangers; it gives them a simple set of questions to ask, so they can focus only on finding people and capturing their responses; it can be adapted to push students out of their comfort zones (for example, by insisting that their MOS subjects be unlike the students in some way — older, younger, of different ethnicity, etc.).

The News Manual, a journalism textbook, defends the MOS (using the common British English term for it, vox pop) as essential to democracy:

The danger is that news can become a one-way flow of information and opinions, from the leaders to the ordinary people. One of the important jobs of journalists is to make sure that the flow of information goes in both directions.

The ordinary people need to know what is being said and decided on their behalf, and how it is likely to affect their lives. At the same time, the leaders need to know the sort of lives that ordinary people lead, to stop them losing touch with reality as they become surrounded with big houses and big cars. They also need to know what ordinary people think and feel about current issues.

The first of these needs – the sort of lives which ordinary people lead – can be met by good human interest stories.

The second need is met by publishing Letters to the editor (an essential part of any newspaper in a free society), by talkback radio and by vox pops.

Many of these arguments seem like those presented for preserving the inverted pyramid — that is, they are invented because people assume something that’s been around awhile must have been created for good reasons, and no one wants to admit they can’t figure out what those reasons were. They’re journalism’s version of the “Motel of the Mysteries.”

Even where I can see logic, these arguments don’t trump my basic philosophy: You can’t teach good journalism by training journalists to do bad journalism.

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