Chapter 22: Vox pops - what are they?

In this chapter - the first of two on vox pops - we look at this important way of making news into a two-way exchange of information and opinions, between leaders and ordinary people. We consider different types of vox pop, and look at the advantages of each, for newspapers and for radio and television. In the next chapter we look in detail at how to conduct vox pops and how to analyse and present the results.

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One useful source of news is a vox pop. This is where journalists or special researchers go out into the street to ask members of the public for their views on matters of current public concern.

There are several different types of vox pop, and we shall consider them all a little later. "Vox pop" is a useful name, but it is jargon - that is, it is only to be used among journalists, because readers and listeners will not know what the term means. Call it a vox pop in the office, but call it a survey in the paper or on air.

"Vox pop" is an abbreviation of vox populi which is Latin for "the voice of the people" (vox = voice, from which English gets words like "vocal"; populi from populus = the people, from which English gets words like "popular" and "population").

What are vox pops for?

Consider for a moment two questions:

  • Who usually makes news?
  • Who receives the news?

The answer to the first question is that, while we know that anybody in the world can make the news, in fact it tends to be the leading figures of society: politicians, chiefs, landowners, businessmen, judges, bishops and so on.

The answer to the second question should be that everyone reads or listens to the news: the leading figures of society, townsfolk, villagers and everybody in between.

The danger is that news can become a one-way flow of information and opinions, from the leaders to the ordinary people. One of the important jobs of journalists is to make sure that the flow of information goes in both directions.

The ordinary people need to know what is being said and decided on their behalf, and how it is likely to affect their lives. At the same time, the leaders need to know the sort of lives that ordinary people lead, to stop them losing touch with reality as they become surrounded with big houses and big cars. They also need to know what ordinary people think and feel about current issues.

The first of these needs - the sort of lives which ordinary people lead - can be met by good human interest stories.

The second need is met by publishing Letters to the editor (an essential part of any newspaper in a free society), by talkback radio and by vox pops.

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Timing

The media use vox pops for many reasons, but chiefly for the following:

  • to test public opinion and reaction
  • to influence decision-makers
  • to forecast results of events
  • to stimulate public debate
  • to promote the newspaper, radio or television station, and make it more popular

If the purpose of the vox pop is to forecast the results of future events, the results must be published or broadcast before the event takes place. You may gather material predicting accurately the result of an election, but if you publish it after the results are known, it will be meaningless.

If the purpose is to stimulate public debate and to influence decision-makers, the results need to be published while people are still deciding what they think. It is very much easier to influence somebody before they take a decision than it is to persuade them to change a decision which they have already taken.

If the purpose of the vox pop is to test public opinion and reaction, or to boost sales or audience, then the results must be published or broadcast while the issue is still in the forefront of the public mind.

All of this adds up to one thing: you have to plan a vox pop in advance, or you have to move extremely fast once you have decided to do it. Otherwise, you will end up publishing a report of what people used to think about a stale old issue which nobody cares much about any more.

If you are planning a proper public opinion survey, you need to plan it a long time in advance. This means you can only do it on issues which you know in advance will be newsworthy, and in practice this usually means elections.

For a simple street poll, you can do it at a moment's notice and broadcast the results the same day or publish them in the next morning's newspaper.

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Types of vox pops

There are three types of vox pop, and each has its place in the media - the full public opinion survey, the limited survey and the simple street poll.

Public opinion survey

This needs to be conducted scientifically by a company which specialises in such surveys. The data which they gather from carefully prepared questions is statistically analysed by computer.

All this costs big money. General elections in the UK and USA are now so carefully covered in advance by such surveys that the result on election day is seldom a surprise.

Limited survey

This can be carried out by journalists, using a structured questionnaire, and some statistical conclusions may be drawn from it. Its accuracy is limited, however, so any findings should be treated with caution.

Street poll

This does not attempt to gather statistical information; it is looking for good quotes. A random selection of members of the public are asked for their opinions on a given topic, and the best ones quoted. It is good to photograph them and publish their quote with their picture, or record their voices for broadcast.

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Different media

Vox pops which are published in newspapers are often very different to vox pops on radio or television.

Radio and television tend to concentrate only on the third type of vox pop: the street poll. There would typically be only one or two questions, and very few interviews would be used. No attempt is made to say that this is what society generally thinks about the issue. It is just what these few ordinary people said when they were asked.

Newspapers can also operate in the same way, asking one or two questions which will get a few lively quotes on an issue. This can make a bright and interesting item in the newspaper. However, newspapers can also use the other two kinds of survey. If they can afford it, they may employ a market research company or a university to do a proper public opinion survey or, for much less money, they can do their own limited survey.

Many newspapers do a combination of the limited survey and the street poll. This can give a story with reasonable statistical evidence about the way people think and feel; but which also has some lively quotes to stop it becoming dull.

We shall talk first about newspapers, since their vox pops can be more complex. At the end of the next chapter we will talk about the ways in which radio and television vox pops are different.

Remember, though, that a lot of what we say about newspapers will also apply to broadcasters, so read the whole of both chapters whichever news medium you work in.

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Fair and honest

It is never a journalist's job to twist or misrepresent the news. You must try to report fairly and honestly what is being done and said and thought.

It is especially easy to give a false impression of what the public are thinking, through a vox pop which is carried out in a careless or deliberately biased way. Special care is therefore needed to make a vox pop fair and honest.

Fair questions

There are questions which are designed to invite a particular answer. These are called loaded questions. If you ask people: "Do you think young people should have the opportunity for discipline and training in National Service?", the answer is likely to be "yes". If you ask the same people: "Should young people be forced into National Service?" the answer is likely to be "no".

The words "have the opportunity" in the first question suggested that National Service is something which young people want. The word "forced" in the second question suggested that it is something which they do not want.

It is not fair to ask loaded questions in a vox pop (or in any other kind of interview). Try to make your questions neutral, such as: "Do you think there should be National Service for young people?"

There are also tricky questions, to which there is no answer that cannot be twisted. If you ask a man: "Have you stopped beating your wife?", what is he to reply? If he says "yes", he is admitting that he used to beat her; if he says "no", it appears that he is still beating her!

It is not fair to ask tricky questions in a vox pop. Keep them simple.

Make all questions so that they can be answered in a way which truly represents the views of the people you are interviewing. In a street poll keep the number of questions to no more than six.

Representative sample

In a proper public opinion survey, the company will have elaborate ways to make sure that the sample interviewed is a fair cross-section of society. For a limited survey or a street poll you cannot be so precise, but you should still try. Do not just ask your friends; do not just ask supporters of one political party; do not just ask people from one province; do not ask only men or only women.

Accurate answers

You must record accurately and precisely what your interviewees say. Ideally, take an accurate shorthand note as they speak. If you prefer you can record each interview with a tape recorder, but you will still need a notebook for the spelling of the person's name, and to note any information you may want about them, such as their sex and age group. It is worth remembering, though, that it is much more difficult to analyse results which are on tape than to analyse results which are on paper.

Fair reporting

Once you have all the replies and quotes in front of you, you must ensure that your finished report fairly represents the views expressed. If half the people thought one thing and the other half thought something else, then devote roughly half your quotes to the one and the other half of your quotes to the other. Do not give undue prominence to a minority view, making it look as though most people think that way.

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TO SUMMARISE:

Choose which kind of vox pop you are going to conduct according to the needs of your organisation and of the individual story.

If you are conducting a survey for newspapers, make sure that you:

  • ask fair and honest questions
  • ask a representative sample of people
  • record your answers accurately
  • report what they say fairly.

This is the end of the first part of this two-part section on vox pops. If you now want to read on, follow this link to the second section, Chapter 23: Conducting vox pops

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Index to Chapter 22
  1. What are vox pops for?
  2. Timing
  3. Types of vox pops
  4. Different media
  5. Fair and honest
  6. To summarise
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