Why You Shouldn't Trust "Man On The Street" Interviews
When I worked for CNN, I occasionally went into the streets of Washington, D.C. to interview “real people” about a topic in the news.
Those interviews—known within newsrooms as an M.O.S. (“man on the street”) or a “vox pop” (derived from the Latin “voice of the people”)—always struck me as problematic.
If we interviewed 20 people about a specific topic, we might have encountered 14 people with a “for” position and 6 with an “against” viewpoint. But when we edited the interviews, we might have had time to air quotes from only two of the people—so for purposes of “balance,” we’d air one of each, as if that 50/50 ratio represented the views we encountered.
That’s an inherent problem with the M.O.S. Time and space restrictions prevent every comment from being aired or printed, so they have to be condensed. Some journalists are better than others about disclosing the overall sentiment of opinions they encountered—and even if they do, that sentiment doesn’t mean much, since M.O.S. interviews only represent a specific place and time (M.O.S. interviews shot on Wall Street would likely yield different results than ones shot at a homeless shelter).
I’m far from the only person skeptical of the technique. In fact, some of the journalists I worked with referred to the M.O.S. under a different, more jaded name: Any Available Assholes, or A.A.A.s. Although flip, it really did seem to capture the essence of the assignment.
Stephen Colbert recently mocked Fox News correspondent Jesse Watters, who occasionally uses the M.O.S. technique to make his subjects look uninformed. Here’s Watters’ technique:
And Colbert’s hilarious response:
For all of these reasons, both silly and serious, I recommend viewing M.O.S. interviews with great skepticism—unless reporters disclose their broader findings.
What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.