The art of the Vox-Pop

Vox-pops have to be one of the most frustrating aspects of modern media. In my opinion, they have a limited place in journalism but are over-used by numerous outlets as a cheap and easy way to ‘reach out’ to the audience. For me, the purpose of a news broadcast is to tell the public something that concerns them (but they don’t yet know). Telling the public what they think is somewhat pointless in news.
However; I would not be too quick to say that using a vox-pop is lazy journalism, because it isn’t. Often getting 20 seconds worth of decent vox-pop audio takes longer than getting 2 minutes of audio from an expert. It is, however, a cop out. Increasingly in Ireland radio stations are claiming to try and reach out to the public; this might be in the form of phone-in’s, text-in polls, vox-pops or listener-driven content. I don’t think these things really reach out to the public though, I think covering the matters that effects them in a professional manner is the best service the public can have. Why on earth would you want to listen to a couple of random people with no solid knowledge on a subject when you could have the experts give the full facts to you instead?
The fact of the matter is, however, vox-pops have their place and will not go away. I don’t like doing them, and I have yet to meet someone who does, but everyone has to do it at some point. Some people are better than others at them, but that doesn’t make the job any more likable.
So, for people forced to engage in Vox-pops, here are a 10 tips to make the experience as painless as possible, all based on my brief experience with the ‘art-form’.

There is no art
Put plainly, your abilities as a person are relegated to second when attempting to get Vox-pops. You might be the best damn journalist in the world, you might know exactly what question to ask but the end product will rely completely on the ability person you stop (or attempt to stop).

Don’t stop believing
Vox-pops can be disheartening at the best of times. Most people don’t want to stop and talk, even if it is just for a few seconds. They probably have better things to do, they’re probably sick of being hassled by Chuggers and they probably prefer to keep their opinions to themselves. The fact is that most people will ignore you or say no, you just have to have the persistance to keep trying until someone speaks to you. There are always people willing to give an opinion, for better or for worse. You just have to weed them out.

Presentation is key
Presentation covers a lot of things. Naturally, appearences are important. Don’t look scruffy, the more professional you look the more likely it is people will take you seriously or consider it worthwhile to talk to you. Secondly do your best to keep your hands free of items besides your mic. Carrying a clipboard/survey/notebook etc. just screams ‘salesman’ and will put people off. Also, smile. Be polite. Say thank you to the people that respond to you, even if they’re just telling you they don’t have time. Another aspect of good presentation is identification; if you’re working for a radio station try and get their logo displayed clearly somewhere, on your mic, your jumper, whatever. This will make people feel more comfortable as they will know you are genuinely from a radio station and not trying to sell something to them.

Perfect pitch
Your approach is your sales pitch, and it’s not easy. Do you just say you want to ask them a question? Do you namecheck the station your working for to get their attention? Do you go straight in for the kill and spring a controversial question on them? There is no perfect all-round solid gold pitch. Just like most things, it’s case-sensitive. Figure what would be the best opening line depending on the type of person you’re approaching or the reaction you’re getting off them.

Honesty is the best policy
Have you ever walked down a busy street only to be pounced on by an “undercover” chugger? It’s not a nice thing and if you’re anything like me it’s a big put off. Don’t hide your microphone from people, don’t hide behind corners or sneak up on them either. Give people plenty of visual notice of your intentions. If you see a well displayed chugger/salesman on the street you will have decided what you’re going to do before you get to them, if you get pressured into making a snap decision it’s likely to be a negative one. The same applies here.

Become a micro-Derren Brown
No, don’t trick people into doing it, just learn the basic body signs of people. Standing on a street and holding a microphone makes it pretty obvious as to what you’re doing. You will see that people who spot you will react in some way. Some get a genuine look of terror in their eyes, some look curious, some duck to avoid eye contact, some pretend to answer a call. Knowing in advance if someone is uneasy about talking will save you a lot of time and hassle, if someone is avoiding eye contact with you you can be sure asking them to talk will be a waste of everyone’s time.

Choose your base carefully
If you’re standing somewhere really busy it will be very difficult to stop people or catch the right ones. If it’s too quiet you’ll be waiting for too long to get enough content.

Take no for an answer
It doesn’t matter how desperate you are for clips, if someone says no, do the right thing and accept it. Say ‘ok, thanks’ or something similar and move on. Chasing people will only alienate them further and possibly get you into trouble.

Do unto others…
The next time you see someone looking for vox-pops, if you can, give them some of your time. It’s not easy for anyone so at the very least people with these experiences should try and help each other out.

Prove you’re above vox-pops
If you hate them as much as I do, you wouldn’t be sad to find yourself in a job that didn’t involve vox-pops. From what I understand vox-pops are always going to be a fact of journalism, regardless of how high up the ladder you climb however they will always be more of a gofor-type job than a Head of Journalism-type job. If you can prove that you’re skills are better concentrated in getting interviews, editing, copyrighting etc, then you might eventually find yourself free of vox-pops. Of course, if you do have to vox-pop, don’t do a bad job just to avoid it in the future, if they think you can’t handle a simple vox-pop, what are they going to trust you with?

I hate doing vox-pops because I hate bugging random people as they try and go about their day; that’s because I hate being bugged when I’m going about my day. However, if you remind yourself that you’re not selling anything it’s not so bad. Besides, if you haven’t got the nerve to stop Joe Soap on the street then how will you pluck up the courage to nail ‘Politician X’ with that killer question?
As long as you don’t pester people, they generally won’t mind. If they don’t want to speak, they won’t. As for the ones that want to speak, well you’d better ask them before they walk by you.

7 Comments

  1. Vox-Pops, their true worth is best seen on Podge and Rodge not the news at one. TBH they are light hearted and space filling. Anytime they are treated as more important is silly and editorially inept.
    C

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  2. Administrator 15/03/2006 at 20:33

    I agree; the best use of a voxpop I’ve ever seen was during The Day Today’s ‘speak your brain’ segment. Superb.

    I worry about voxpops being used as a tool to bias; obviously journalists reporting news should not be giving opinions, but they seem to think it’s ok for the public to do it instead; in most cases the journalist writing or presenting the news on radio will also be editing clips for it, and can edit clips to lean the piece one way or another; besides even without any intention it is very hard to get a balanced view point, you could stop 20 people and get one side of the argument from them all (Which outlets would use to suggest that the feeling amongst the public is unanimous), when in reality they could be the only people to feel that way… it’s not a fair sample.

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  3. What;s interesting about those ten times is how they can be transferred into other industries and even social situations.

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  4. I would see the use of vox pops in news and current affairs/documentaries as a device for producers to present the principal strands of opinion on an issue in a manner which engages audiences more than would a reporter or panel of experts or commentators.

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  5. I would actually like to see more vox pops used on TV and radio, but used properly. 15 seconds of three-word opinions on the six one news is totally useless and just seems like pure filler.

    If you’re going to ask the public about their opinions on something make sure its about a topic that most people would have an opinion on – and if you don’t get satisfactory answers, don;’t try to cobble something together, just leave it out!

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  6. Thanks for this. I work abroad and part of the story is always what the “average local” thinks. Hate getting them and no one here has ever heard of where I work doesn’t make it easier. Glad to know I just have to soldier on!

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  7. I’ve run away from journalists looking for voxpop. But I won’t do it again. I worked as a broadcast journalist for a very short time a very long time ago, and forgot how difficult it could be. Great post.

    Reply

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