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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Was Saturday Night Live’s Apology Skit Enough?

Written by Christina Mozaffari (@PMRChristina) on November 4, 2013 – 9:03 pm

Recently, Saturday Night Live faced criticism that the cast lacks diversity, specifically for its absence of black women. Kenan Thompson, one of the show’s three minority actors, announced he would no longer cross-dress to play characters like Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg.

There has not been a black female SNL cast member since 2007. To put that in perspective, that means there has not been a permanent cast member on the show during the entire Obama presidency to play Mrs. Obama.


Actress Kerry Washington plays Michelle Obama on Saturday Night Live, November 2, 2013


In a sharply critical article last week, The New York Times noticed the dearth of black women on the show:

“Let me state the obvious: That “Saturday Night Live,” once home of the Not Ready for Prime Time players, has hired only three black women for its main cast— in addition to Yvonne Hudson, a featured player in 1980 — in four decades says more about the show than about the talent pool.”

The show answered its critics this past Saturday night, when actress Kerry Washington hosted the show. In the opening skit, Ms. Washington was asked to play several black female characters, looking incredulous as she ran back and forth for quick wardrobe changes.

As she switched characters, an announcer came on, with text on the screen acknowledging the situation in what I thought was a fairly humorous way:

“The producers of Saturday Night Live would like to apologize to Kerry Washington for the number of black women she will be asked to play tonight. We made these requests both because Ms. Washington is an actress of considerable talent and also because SNL does not currently have a black woman in the cast. As for the latter reason, we agree this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the near future. Unless of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.”

From a crisis communications perspective, there’s an interesting question here: Was the skit an effective response to the situation?

Maybe. The skit was self-aware, funny, and it answered the critics in a way that was genuine to the show. That Ms. Washington played characters Mr. Thompson once portrayed or that haven’t been possible to portray on the show recently was slyly smart.

However, if SNL does nothing to correct this egregious problem by casting a black woman quickly, the skit will be considered flip and dismissive in hindsight.

What Do You Think? Did Saturday Night Live Handle The Criticism Well?

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Christina Mozaffari is the vice president of Phillips Media Relations. She tweets at @PMRChristina.

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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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A 19-Year-Old, A Racist Tweet And A Front-Page Shaming

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on September 7, 2013 – 9:05 pm

Penn State’s student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, ran a front-page story on Friday about a student who sent a racially incendiary tweet. 

Ashley Lytle, a 19-year-old student, tweeted:

Ashley Lytle Tweet

That’s obviously an inappropriate and offensive tweet—one that I have no intent of defending. She deserves to be criticized for sending it. 

But instead of focusing on my usual angle of media training, I’d rather focus on the sticky question of journalistic responsibility.

When writing about a 19-year-old college student who’s not a public figure (she’s not a student leader or high-profile college athlete), there must be some degree of proportionality. I have to imagine that many other Penn State students—there are more than 39,000 undergraduates at University Park—have also sent offensive tweets or said similarly offensive things. Is the new standard for the Collegian to shame everyone who does on its front page? And if not, is their cherry picking—which will mark Ms. Lytle as a racist for much of her college life—appropriate? 

In this case, the front page placement seems irresponsible given the thinness of the news story. (You can read the full article here, which doesn’t say much other than: Student sends bad tweet. Some people mad.) If there were mass protests on campus from offended students, I’d understand the front-page coverage. Same if the administration was considering kicking her out of the school or if the article served as more of an in-depth look at the ill effects of social media on campus. 

None of that was the case here.

Yes, this story may have been worthy of mention in the paper. But it would have been more responsible to cover the story on an inside page, which would have served the dual purpose of covering the story while giving it proportional coverage. 

Regardless, this story, like so many others, underscores the need for social media training. Some colleges and universities are offering that to students—particularly for student-athletes—but in a world in which a single tweet can destroy a person’s reputation, it makes sense to arm every student with the information they need to make smarter choices. (Chris Syme’s excellent book “Practice Safe Social” is a great place to start.)

For her part, Ms. Lytle has apologized.

UPDATE: September 8, 2013, 2:45 P.M.

I received an email from Brittany Horn, the Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Collegian, explaining her paper’s decision to cover this story. Due to the length of her response, I’ve posted it, in its entirely, to the comments section below. I encourage you to read her letter in full. You’ll also find my response to her email beneath her comment.

What Do You Think?

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A grateful hat tip to @ProfNichols.

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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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 Want more media analysis and training tips? Follow me on Twitter @PMRChristina!

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Bookmark This New Website: Retro Report

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 9, 2013 – 6:02 am

Many of this blog’s readers are news junkies. So in a slight departure from this blog’s usual content today, I’d like to suggest you bookmark a new website that debuted this week called “Retro Report.”

I really like the promise of this site, because it seeks to correct one of the biggest problems with today’s media. Too often, a story dominates the headlines for a few days and then disappears. But what happens after the story disappears? Did more information about the story emerge? Did it ever get reported? Did the original breaking news coverage get parts of the story wrong or omit a key perspective?

Retro Report, a nonprofit documentary news organization, seeks to tell “the truth now about the big stories then.”

The first Retro Report piece takes viewers back to 1987, when “a barge loaded with New York garbage became a sensational fiasco,” but “ended up fueling the modern recycling movement.” The story was big enough for Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, and Bob Schieffer to report on at the time. Even Johnny Carson couldn’t resist cracking a joke. Here’s the story:

Publisher Taegan Goddard told me he “hopes that Retro Report can become the Wikipedia for news—the place to go to find out what happened to stories that once dominated the news.”

You can follow the RSS feed of Retro Report, follow them on Twitter or Facebook, or sign up for email alerts when new stories get posted.

This looks like a great project. I hope you enjoy it as much as I expect to.

Update: Monday, May 13, 2013: Retro Report posted its newest video today. This one, about the Tailhook military sexual harassment scandal, is also excellent.

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April 2013: The Worst Video Media Disaster

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 3, 2013 – 6:02 am

If you follow my Twitter feed (I’m at @MrMediaTraining), you know that I often have critical words to say about CNN. Based on my tweets alone, you might reasonably conclude that I hate the network.

The truth is I don’t. I’m just bitterly disappointed in what the network has become. CNN’s decline has occurred at the exact moment that a solid news—not opinion—network is needed most.

There’s a critical need for a cable news channel that aims down the middle and gets it right. CNN should be the network that meets that need. Instead, it’s too often filled with silly and completely unnecessary graphics of holograms (really), silly and completely unnecessary over-coverage of “breaking” stories (such as the hours-long broadcast following the arrival of the Carnival Triumph cruise ship), and, worst of all, incorrect reporting.

John King Bad Report

CNN has had its credibility shattered in recent years. Its reputation took a bad hit in 1998, when the network claimed that U.S. troops committed war crimes during Operation Tailwind, a covert incursion that occurred during the Vietnam War. The network retracted the report.

In 2000, the network suffered another black eye by calling the presidential race incorrectly. More recently, CNN said that Gabrielle Giffords had died (she didn’t), that the Supreme Court overturned ObamaCare (it didn’t), and that Ryan Lanza was the Newtown shooter (he wasn’t – it was his brother, Adam).

But CNN’s misreporting this month about the Boston Marathon bombings may have been its lowest moment, compounding the network’s growing reputation for blowing the big story.

At the time of this report, no arrest had been made—Correspondent John King made these comments before the manhunt in Watertown, Massachusetts that led to the death of one suspect and the capture of the other.

King didn’t stop there. He also described the suspect as a “dark-skinned male,” which turned out to a questionable description—and was probably too vague to warrant mention at all.

John King later acknowledged his mistake and described his agony over getting it wrong. But CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker seemed not to care. He sent his staff a tone-deaf and congratulatory statement on their wonderful coverage of the bombing:

“For journalists like each of us, these are the times that define what we do and why we do it. All of you, across every division of CNN Worldwide, have done exceptional work. And when we made a mistake, we moved quickly to acknowledge it and correct it.”

Zucker is right that these are the times that define what they do. It’s just that his rose-colored definition is wrong. Despite the fact that many of CNN’s reporters and correspondents reported parts of the story well, their successes were rightfully drowned out by their mistakes.

It’s true that other news organizations got this story (and some of the others I mentioned in this piece) wrong. But I don’t expect more from many of those outlets. I do expect more from CNN. And for that reason, I’m naming CNN’s misreporting the worst video media disaster of the month.

What do you think? Was I too hard on CNN, or do they deserve being named the worst disaster of the month? 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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