“Well, I’m no astrologer, but it seems to me that getting back to the moon is really important, because, you know, there are so many hungry people who could use all that green cheese.”
The above is a fabrication, of course, but is it fundamentally different than one I saw this morning on CNN? The “CNN Express” interviewed a single person about a proposed economic stimulus package. The answer, paraphrased, was “Well, I’m no economist, but it seems to me that that amount of money really won’t have a great deal of impact in helping those who need it.”
Hell – the economists themselves argue about the importance and impact! Why drag average people into the discussion, unless the goal is to play to a sense of populism or vanity (see people just like you!) I’m not really a fan of “man-on-the-street” interviews. Loathed gathering them when I worked in news, and don’t enjoy watching them now at any level.
First, the assignments are usually afterthoughts, which means that those assigned the job have other things to do, and want to knock them out as quickly as possible.
Second, there is a horrible selection bias. Many of those who might have something to say simply don’t – most likely because they know they aren’t experts. That leaves us to cajole those who either don’t know what they don’t know, or don’t care.
Third, there is an insidious selection bias. In most circumstances, the “rule of magic threes” applies, where you must return with at least three people in the soundbites. Within those three people, you must come back with at least two political parties, two genders, two socio-economic levels, and two ethnicities. Which means that you either go in search of stereotypes, or you immediately dismiss people you might ask on the street because you’ve already “filled that slot.” Faux diversity. Most news directors will proclaim at this point that there is no such directive in the newsrooms. Most reporters I know are nodding their heads right now, and understand what would happen if they returned with three soundbites from people who looked alike.
Fourth, rarely do the individuals you ask have a perspective that has not already been shared in the news. It’s an echo-chamber, designed to fill time. The exception I can think of off-hand is reaction to an event where there has been no news cycle, like “what did you think of the debate/game?” Once there has been a news cycle addressing the issue, the personal perceptions start to become colored with what has already survived the media filter.
Fifth, peer pressure stifles the most interesting opinions. Ask someone off-camera for an insight or what they think is important, and you may get a fantastic opinion that launches your story in a new direction. It may spur you to find an expert or someone with a vested interest that brings a new direction to the debate. The opinion might be perceived as unpopular, though, so the same person asked on-camera will refuse to share it.
Finally, we’re never told how many people were approached to share their opinion. Did the first four people you asked say yes? How many locations did you target (typically just one)? Are you showing us the opinions of three out of seven who said yes? Were you turned down by eight people, or eighty? Even with such a small representative sample, I can glean some important information from knowing how many people turned you down.
The practice isn’t going anywhere. Local news remains desperate to shoe-horn local people into every newscast, because people like seeing themselves or others like them. Across all levels of broadcast news, the business model has not matured and caught up to the realities of more competitive options and lower-cost alternatives. Man-on-the-street is cheap to produce, and it fills the time between the commercials.
Hey — everyone is allowed to have an opinion. But not all opinions are news. Confusing the two is somewhat dangerous.
[tags]Ike Pigott, Occam’s RazR, broadcasting, television, news[/tags]