MEDIA BRANDS: Journalistic laziness of man-on-the-street interviews can breed political manipulation

Everyone has a pet peeve about how the news media does business. For some, it's the focus on sensationalistic, gotcha journalism.

Everyone has a pet peeve about how the news media does business. For some, it's the focus on sensationalistic, gotcha journalism.

For others, it's the stench of ideology that wafts from reporting. And, of course, the out-and-out lying uncovered in recent months has appalled everyone. My biggest peeve is innocuous by comparison but nonetheless telling of the lack of thought reporters and editors often bring to the construction of news stories. My peeve is the man-on-the-street story. Ever since I was first assigned one as an intern at a major metropolitan newspaper, I've hated them. Many editors think they're a time-honored journalistic convention that gives a voice to the common man or woman who wouldn't otherwise have one. I think these stories are intellectually bankrupt, a vapid way to fill newspaper columns or broadcast seconds, a cheap replacement for real reporting and writing. But worse than that, they can be a way for a journalist to slant coverage that's presented as unbiased. Such was the case earlier this month when The New York Times was slapped by a watchdog group for trying to pass off well-known political activists as ordinary senior citizens confused by a Medicare policy. Capital Research Center, which monitors nonprofits, sent out a press release that lashed The Times for not clearly identifying the activists as such, calling the paper "grossly derelict." For its part, The Times acted quickly, printing an Editor's Note that acknowledged that the reporter, John Leland, didn't know that the retirees quoted were previously part of a video made by Families USA, a group that's critical of Medicare policy. It said: "Had that been known, The Times would have chosen others to comment for the article or would have made clear the two interviewees' connection to the advocacy group." In the context of recent dust-ups over inaccuracy and outright lying in journalism, this seems like nothing. The Times, of course, is not infallible, and it reacted promptly to the miscue. The incident does, however, throw some light on just what's wrong with lining news stories with quotes from "ordinary people." It presupposes that those interviewed are not only free of bias, but informed enough on the issue to make a credible and worthy comment. Any reporter who's ever done this kind of interview knows this is rarely the case, unless the topic is sports or celebrity-related. Moreover, these man-on-the-street stories are often slapped together on a tight deadline in a desperate hunt for a catchy quote. There's little, if any, time to research the people interviewed. Last year's amusing story about Greg Packer, a kind of lovable everyman quoted in more than 100 articles in major media outlets, illustrated only part of the futility of trolling crowds or cold-calling people for opinion. What it didn't demonstrate, but The Times incident does, is how the laziness inspired by the convention can lend itself to political manipulation.

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