Why You Shouldn’t Trust “Man On The Street” Interviews

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 21, 2014 – 12:02 am

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. 

young journalist giving microphone

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.

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March 2014: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 31, 2014 – 12:02 am

Last summer, media critic Jay Rosen announced he would no longer criticize CNN. “As of today, I have retired from criticism of CNN for falling short of some sort of journalistic standard that news providers should maintain. That activity no longer makes sense.”

Rosen argued that since CNN no longer holds itself to news standards, it would be pointless to do so himself.

I agreed with much of his premise at the time, but wasn’t ready to give up on my former employer quite yet (I worked at CNN from 1999-2001). I cherish the role that CNN should be playing—a straight-up-the-middle news outlet—and wanted to believe that the network would eventually wander back to its roots.

Instead, with its saturation coverage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, CNN has taken a giant step backward in its evolution from well-respected news outlet to The Jerry Springer Show.

Don Lemon Black Hole

The coverage reached its nadir during Don Lemon’s newscasts. First, Mr. Lemon speculated that the supernatural could be responsible for the plane’s disappearance:

“Especially today, on a day when we deal with the supernatural, we go to church, the supernatural power of God. You deal with all of that. People are saying to me, why aren’t you talking about the possibility—and I’m just putting it out there—that something odd happened to this plane, something beyond our understanding?”

Next, he wondered whether a black hole could have somehow sucked the plane out of the universe, a suggestion his guest batted down immediately.

Not to be outdone, CNN’s sister network, CNN Headline News, hosted a psychic who said she doesn’t like to rely on facts (the passengers are alive, she claimed).

CNN Headline News Psychics

Psychics. Black holes. Supernatural forces. Baseless speculation. This is CNN.

As atrocious as CNN’s coverage has been, the network’s ratings are up. That prompted Piers Morgan’s executive producer to tweet this:

Jonathan Wald Tweet

Wald appears to be conflating popularity with quality. That’s like saying McDonald’s sells the best burgers since it sells the most hamburgers. No, quality and popularity aren’t inextricably linked. Wald’s suggestion otherwise offers a discouraging view into the network’s ends-justify-the-means approach to news.

Yes, CNN still has some quality journalists working for the network, some of whom are friends and former colleagues. But that misses the point. The network is only as good as its least responsible programming, of which there’s an intolerable amount.

Like Jay Rosen before me, I’m tired of expecting more from the network. I’m choosing to click away and find my news in places that exercise more journalistic restraint. I’m just sad that the once-respected 24-hour news network has become little more than a 24-hour network.

Jon Stewart’s takedown of the shameful cable news coverage of Malaysia Air 370 is worth watching.

What are your thoughts about CNN’s programming? Please leave your views in the comments section below.

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The Worst Super Bowl Ad Of 2014

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 3, 2014 – 12:28 pm

Since last night’s Super Bowl, one advertisement has stuck with me more than any other, and not for a good reason.

A Honda ad starring Bruce Willis—ostensibly about car safety—was manipulative at best, the advertising equivalent of a bait and switch. 

The ad started with a close-up of Bruce Willis, soft music playing in the background. He begins:

“Great game, right? So you’re probably expecting me to crash a car or blow up something up. But really, I’m here to talk about car safety. Look around you. Who do you see? Friends, family, neighbors, all of your loved ones. Everyone you care about. And here’s what I want you to do. I want you to give each and every one of them a hug. I’ll wait.”

I was watching the game with my wife—and although we didn’t hug as directed, I’ll admit that Willis made me feel like I should be hugging my wife. By using the heavy-handed device of invoking the safety of my family, he got my attention.

But then the camera panned out. Suddenly, Saturday Night Live alum Fred Armisen could be seen in the frame giving Willis a waist-level hug and grinning maniacally into the camera.

Bruce Willis Super Bowl 2014 Ad

I felt duped. Willis used my family’s safety to catch my attention, then introduced an entirely unrelated element in a misguided effort to lighten the mood. If anyone had hugged their loved ones as Willis instructed, they might have felt that Willis betrayed their trust by undercutting his message in such an insincere way.

In his book How To Deliver a TED Talk, author Jeremy Donovan describes a speaker he once saw open a speech using a similar device:

“To kick off his presentation, he asks his audience to stand up, put their hand on their heart, turn around, and take one step forward. He then goes on to say that he can now report to his own boss when asked how the presentation went that he ‘got them on their feet, touched their heart, turned them around, and got them moving in the right direction.’ It is a clever gimmick. But, if you look closely at the audience members, many are displaying the body language of people who just realized they have just been manipulated.”

If you’re going to invoke family and friends in a seemingly authentic way, you can’t expect to keep your audience’s goodwill by suddenly pulling the rug out from under them.

What did you think of this ad? What were your favorite and least favorite Super Bowl ads? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Did you miss the Super Bowl ads? Below is a compilation of them all. 

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Falsely Accused: The Sad Life Of Richard Jewell

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 7, 2013 – 7:34 am

The mainstream media have a sad track record of labeling innocent people as murderers.

Just last month, several news organizations named the wrong man in the Navy Yard shootings. The New York Post identified the wrong Boston Marathon bombers. Many news outlets reported that Adam Lanza’s innocent brother was the Newtown school shooter.

But one name symbolizes the media’s rush to judgment more than any other: Richard Jewell.

Jewell was the Georgia security guard who discovered a backpack filled with explosives at the Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. He notified police, who began clearing the area—but the explosives detonated before the area could be cleared, killing one person and injuring more than 100.

Many news organizations named Jewell as a suspect. He was later exonerated. But his life was never the same, and he died at the early age of 44 in 2007.

Retro Report released a terrific look back at his case today, which shows the high personal cost of the media’s too-frequent rush to judgment. It’s worth watching.

 I’m finally on Google+. Here’s the link if you’d like to connect there!


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How One Man Defeated A Biased Interviewer

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 29, 2013 – 1:30 pm

I’ve seen a lot of biased, ill-informed, and journalistically lazy interviews through the years, and this one was one of the worst. But the author who was the target of the anchor’s ire stood up to her questions well—and, in part due to his deft handling of that interview, currently has Amazon’s top-selling book.

Writer Reza Aslan—a prolific author who holds a Ph.D. in the sociology of religion—appeared on the Fox News Channel to discuss his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

Fox News anchor Lauren Green went into the interview clearly skeptical of the book—less for its content, about which she was clearly unfamiliar—but because Aslan is Muslim. And a Muslim writing about Jesus was just too much for her to take.

I haven’t read Aslan’s book; therefore, I’m unable to judge its content or objectivity. Perhaps Aslan’s critics have legitimate criticisms of his work. But Ms. Green’s agenda-driven questions didn’t shine a light on them in an illuminating manner.

Her entire premise was flawed, arguing that a Muslim couldn’t possibly write an objective history of Jesus. That’s a specious argument, one that would logically also preclude the possibility that a Christian could write fairly about Judaism. And although religion and race isn’t the same, her logical construct isn’t a far leap from suggesting that a white historian couldn’t write fairly about a black civil rights leader or that an African American couldn’t write about George Washington. Exploring a writer’s motivation is one thing; dismissing his work without careful inspection is quite another.

Instead of focusing on the book’s content and taking issue with specific points, Green read a series of quotes from people who didn’t like the book. But instead of relying on a neutral third party critic, the first quote came from…wait for it…FoxNews.com! Get that? She may as well have said, “I’d like to read you a quote from an article written by someone who contributes to the same news organization for which I work. He magically has the same premise I do, and I’d like to use it to attack you.”

But the biggest jaw-dropper came at the end of the interview, when Green asked Aslan why he tried to hide his religious identify from the public. “It’s on page two of my book!” retorted a surprised Aslan, proving that Green hadn’t done even the slightest bit of research before their conversation.

Since this is primarily a media training blog, here are four lessons you can learn from Reza Aslan if you’re ever the target of a biased media interview.

1. He looked reasonable. No matter how offensive Ms. Green’s questions became, Aslan maintained the high ground and kept his cool. When challenged, Mr. Aslan described his bona fides and invited viewers to review his book’s 100 pages of end notes.  His reasonableness, contrasted with host’s badly prepared questions, made him look better the longer the interview continued.

2. He conceded the obvious. When Ms. Green confronted him by saying many scholars disagreed with his work, he didn’t deny the charge—he embraced it. Such is the nature of academic debate, he pointed out, before reminding Green that many scholars agreed with him, too.  

3. He corrected the anchor’s flawed premise. When the host asked Aslan “Why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?” he responded to that flabbergasting question calmly by saying, “Because it’s my job as an academic. I am a professor of religion…It’s unfair to assume that because of my particular faith background, that there is some agenda on this book.”

4. He pushed back—but not too quickly. After being asked the same question numerous times, Aslan politely pushed back, saying, “I think it’s strange that rather than debating the arguments of the book, we’re debating the right of the scholar to write it.”

In the end, Aslan proves a point I make frequently on this blog—that tough questions should be regarded as gifts that allow you to demonstrate your competence. His calm, competent handling of her loaded questions convinced many people that he deserved a fair hearing—as proven by landing at the top of Amazon’s bestsellers list.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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A Small Thanks To Helen Thomas

Written by Christina Mozaffari (@PMRChristina) on July 23, 2013 – 6:01 am

Journalism just lost one of its most dynamic and dedicated stars.

Veteran reporter Helen Thomas died on Saturday at the age of 92. A pioneer for women in journalism, she was the first woman to cover the president and not just the First Lady; the first female president of the White House Correspondents Association; and, above all, a no-nonsense reporter who fired tough questions at every president who has served since John F. Kennedy. In short, she was a force.

But I’ll remember her for a different reason.


Helen Thomas


A long time ago, Helen Thomas sat down with a group of high school kids visiting Washington, D.C. – myself included — who wanted to be reporters. She talked to us about the profession and her experience. I was star-struck, inspired, and excited to pursue a career in journalism.

Upon her death, the president of the White House Correspondents Association said that “women and men who’ve followed in the press corps all owe a debt of gratitude for the work Helen did and the doors she opened.” But I’d go a step further and say we can learn a lot from Ms. Thomas when it comes to paving the way for young people starting their professional lives.

That small amount of time Ms. Thomas gave us — gave me — made a big difference in my life, and for that, I’m grateful. I’m also reminded how important mentoring is.

I certainly didn’t make it through my journalism career without a lot of gracious help and guidance from people who had been in the profession longer than me. I was fortunate to start my career in Washington D.C. surrounded by some of the best news professionals in the business, and I still employ their lessons in my work today.

Even small efforts, like having coffee with an entry-level employee to talk about career paths, or writing a glowing recommendation for a deserving intern, or speaking to a classroom of young children about what you do, can make a huge difference in a life. Don’t miss your opportunity to positively influence the future of your profession, just like Helen did for journalism.

Christina Mozaffari was an Emmy Award-winning journalist for NBC News. Today, she serves as the vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

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Are Journalists Rebelling Against Going Off-The-Record?

Written by Christina Mozaffari (@PMRChristina) on May 30, 2013 – 1:54 pm

Attorney General Eric Holder is meeting with bureau chiefs from major news outlets this week for off-the-record sessions. They’re discussing the recent revelations that the Department of Justice seized phone records from Associated Press reporters and investigated Fox News reporter James Rosen for his reporting of sensitive leaked government information.

Not everybody is playing ball – as of this writing, The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Huffington Post, CNN and McClatchy will not attend as long as the session remains off the record.

This isn’t the first time the Obama Administration has been in the news for its controlling policies when it comes to dealing with the media. Just last summer, The New York Times reported on the practice of political press officers having final approval on quotes used in stories in exchange for access to top campaign officials. Of course, trying to control the media by restricting access is not exclusive to the Obama administration — but each successive recent Administration seems to be moving toward increasingly stricter controls.

As a former journalist, I find that these off-the-record meetings continue a dangerous trend regarding the media’s dealings with this Administration. This Department of Justice issue affects the news media itself and, as the point of a free press is to shine a light on government and its actions, should be discussed openly. Furthermore, from a communications standpoint, I’m not sure this serves to reassure the public that the Obama administration is committed to press freedoms.

MSNBC’s Morning Joe hosted a great debate on the topic this morning featuring top journalists and former politicians. The clip is a bit long at 22 minutes, but I suggest you take the time to watch it anyway. In it, Ron Fournier, the Editorial Director of the National Journal and former Washington Bureau Chief for the Associated Press voiced his concerns about the meeting, saying:

“Off the record in Washington means it’s a secret. It means even if… If you show me pictures of a senator with sheep, I can’t do anything with it… I’m not a priest. My job is to report what is happening. So why would I want to be a part of…meeting with a bunch of other journalists on a topic this important that is a secret. And the high irony here is that the Attorney General who’s been snooping on our news organizations wanted us to keep his secret.”

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Outlets participating in the meeting cited the common practice of off-the-record conversations between journalists and sources. Politico’s Editor in Chief John Harris said in an email:

“As editor in chief, I routinely have off-the-record conversations with people who have questions or grievances about our coverage or our newsgathering practices. I feel anyone–whether an official or ordinary reader–should be able to have an unguarded conversation with someone in a position of accountability for a news organization when there is good reason.”

What lessons can communications professionals take from this?

1. Be wary of off-the-record agreements. Even if the agreement is honored, it may be reported that your organization insisted on an off-the-record situation, making it look like you have something to hide.

2. Off-the-record may affect your relationship with reporters. Many reporters resent this culture of off the record in straightforward situations. This agreement should be used sparingly.

3. Just because the Obama administration gets away with off-the-record demands to some degree doesn’t mean you will. Access to the President and top administration officials is necessary for political journalists to do their job. Access to your organization probably doesn’t rate with journalists quite as high.

Should Reporters Attend An Off-The-Record Meeting With Eric Holder?

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A Brief And Incomplete History of Media Mistakes

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 17, 2013 – 4:17 pm

CNN is yet again being criticized for misreporting a major news story.

This time, the network claimed that a suspect had been arrested in connection with the Boston Marathon bombing. After the FBI issued a stern rebuke, the occasional news network backed away from the story. (Others got the story wrong as well, but CNN’s mistakes were made with particular panache.)

BuzzFeed did a wonderful job of capturing CNN’s awful hour of reporting here.

Below are a few other high-profile examples of mainstream media outlets getting a major story wrong. 

In December 2012, after the horrific shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, many news outlets wrongly identified the shooter as Adam Lanza’s brother, Ryan. Lanza’s mother was also widely reported to have been a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School; she wasn’t. Many news outlets also misreported the type of gun used in the attack.


In June 2012, both CNN and the Fox News Channel misreported the Supreme Court’s decision regarding President Obama’s health care law, as the screenshots below show.



In 2011, many news organizations misreported that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died. According to Poynter.org:

“Organizations such as NPR, Reuters, Fox News, CBS, CNN and the Huffington Post sent out tweets or distributed other reports declaring Giffords dead. The New York Times’ website briefly reported her dead as well.”


In 2004, The New York Post splashed John Kerry’s Vice Presidential choice on its front page: “Dem picks (Dick) Gephardt,” blared the headline. Except he didn’t. John Edwards got the nod.

In 2000, CNN reported that Al Gore had won Florida.


In 1981, President Reagan’s spokesperson, James Brady, was declared dead by news networks after being hit by one of John Hinkley’s bullets. He’s still alive.


Remember President Thomas E. Dewey? In 1948, The Chicago Tribune named him the winner of the presidential election. He wasn’t. Harry Truman was elected to a full term.

These are just a few examples – the list of incorrect media stories could include hundreds of others.

I think it’s reasonable to conclude that breaking news coverage is broken. I no longer trust the first wave of reporting on the cable news channels. In the rush to be first, they too often blow the story, or at least critical parts of the story.

We should be skeptical when reporters rely upon the wording “sources said.” Yes, anonymous sources are often reliable. But as we’ve seen from these high-profile examples, they’re too often wrong. And we, as viewers, have no way of determining the credibility of those anonymous sources. That has always been so, but in light of these major and recurring mistakes, it’s more so now than ever before.

From now on, I’m inclined to wait until law enforcement officials confirm stories publicly before fully believing them. You probably should too.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

    Brad Phillips

    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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