by Heidi Tworek
Columbia Journalism Review
March 27, 2018
American media outlets have a Twitter problem. The problem is not journalists’ notorious addiction to the platform—it’s their use of tweets as a way to include opinions from “ordinary people.” Often, these ordinary people turn out not to be “ordinary” or “people” at all.
By embedding tweets from ordinary people, news outlets hope to include more voices in their work and create stories about more than recycled, elite reactions to events. In this sense, those tweets are the updated version of a historical journalistic practice: the use of “vox pop” or “people on the street” quotations. Short for “vox populi,” or “voice of the people” in Latin, the technique sends reporters onto the streets to find a few people to provide their thoughts on a topic. Ideally, the reporter finds opposing views on the topic to represent the supposed breadth of public opinion.
But using ordinary voices from Twitter can easily backfire. A recent study by two researchers at the University of Madison-Wisconsin found that 32 out of 33 major American news organizations had embedded tweets created by the Internet Research Agency, an organization located in St. Petersburg and backed by Russians linked to Vladimir Putin. This included outlets ranging from NPR and The Washington Post to digital natives like BuzzFeed and Salon.
Vox pop, like embedding tweets, was widely viewed as a problematic practice. Even at its best, vox pop provided distorted versions of reality by highlighting a few voices over others and promoting false equivalence. But news outlets developed informal guidelines in the 1970s around whom to interview on the street and how. Today’s newsrooms could learn from—and expand on—these earlier norms.
Interviewing people on the street for their opinions about any subject started with print newspapers. In the 1800s, reporters didn’t take notes, and quotation practices were loose. But in the first decades of the 20th century, interview practices—at least with well-known figures and story subjects—became standardized, with notetaking and, often, checking quotations with sources before printing.
From the late 19th century, newspapers also started to create sections that featured their readers in many different ways, such as endorsements for products, letters to the editor, and writing in to advice columns. Daily Q&A sections featured readers’ answers, sometimes along with their photographs. Newspapers like The Washington Times of Washington, DC (1902-1939) had a regular section answering readers’ queries. One typical day on March 19, 1911, included inquiries about the origins of egg rolling at Easter, where to buy a copy of the book Dracula, and how to clean pink silk velvet ribbon, one-inch wide.
Vox pop as we know it today really took off after World War II with radio and TV. It was often used to highlight ordinary people who were personally affected by a news story or incident, to provide reactions and opinions. I’ve even been that person myself. A year after the Boston marathon bombings in 2013, I went on The Takeaway to discuss how the shutdown of Boston changed my sense of community. My only qualification was living in Somerville, close to the bombers’ residence.
Ordinary voices were also used to add a fresh angle to a tired event, color to a broader scientific study, or a local angle to a national or international story. At its best, vox pop could convey widespread feelings in a relatable way. Brenda from Bristol became a national sensation in the UK in 2017 when a BBC reporter broke the news to her that there would be a general election. Brenda blurted out: “You’re joking! Not another one! Oh, for god’s sake, honestly, I can’t stand this. There’s too much politics going on at the moment!”
Reporting like this draws on vox pop practices that were standardized by the 1970s. UNESCO even included it in its news manual for journalists in developing countries from the mid-1980s. Journalists using vox pop were meant to find opposing opinions on a subject and include a broad range of ages and genders—but it was never meant to be a representative sample. Vox pop was the opposite of a scientific questionnaire that sought structured, comparable answers. Rather, reporters sought pithy soundbites from quotidian backdrops like streets, malls, and parks. As UNESCO advised aspiring journalists: “What you want is good quotes, and the questions must be open-ended to encourage them.”
The BBC’s vox pop guidelines published in 2014 similarly emphasize that “vox pops are a tool of illustration, NOT a tool of research” (emphasis in original).
Although almost all outlets relied on the practice, some journalists have long looked down on it. In 1999, Lou Prato, a former radio and television news producer, called vox pop “one of the most inane, worthless, and overused story techniques in radio and television news.” It was often, as one TV news consultant admitted, “a way to fill up time in a newscast.”
Because vox pop generally includes opposing views on any subject, the genre is often accused of purveying false equivalence, as in the media coverage of the 2016 presidential election. It can also can promote lazy reporting, when journalists use people on the street in place of well-informed sources. Observer columnist Catherine Bennett lamented in April 2017 that “a hit-and-run encounter on the street can never work as a substitute for thorough reporting and analysis.” The American equivalent was reporting on “the white working class” as pro-Trump without making clear that much of the working class is not white or did not vote for Trump.
Embedded tweets often serve the same function in online news stories. They fill up space in a story, and are used to showcase multiple opinions on political issues—low-hanging fruit to journalists tasked with churning out multiple stories a day.
These embedded tweets often look like (and suffer from the same problems as) older vox pop techniques. In two ways, though, these tweets carry new dangers that need fresh guidelines.
First, the identity of tweeters can be easily faked. Jenna Abrams seemed like a Trump-supporting, all-American woman. She later turned out to be an invention of the Russian troll factory known as the Internet Research Agency. The best way to avoid this trap is to create verification procedures, like checking whether the Twitter user is a bot.
Tools like Indiana University’s botometer are not 100 percent accurate, but they are far better than nothing. Or, reporters could make a good-faith effort to contact Twitter users directly before quoting their tweets, through DMs or by tweeting at them. (This, however, would not have been enough in the case of Abrams, who responded to tweets and DMs so convincingly that she seemed American.) While time-consuming and sometimes impossible, a more reliable method would be to try to speak briefly on the phone with Twitter users before featuring their tweets. This wouldn’t always be easy, because many Twitter users don’t have open DMs, or they might not respond swiftly to a request for a phone number. It would, however, avoid the Abrams debacle.
Second, news organizations generally embed tweets, which shows the number of replies, retweets, and favorites the tweet has received. Large numbers of favorites or retweets seem to prove that a point of view is legitimate, credible, or well-liked. But those numbers are not evidence of anything; they can be manipulated by bots. What seems like a widespread view may only be widespread among computers.
News outlets could avoid providing misleading numbers by quoting tweets rather than embedding them. That provides information about the opinion without suggesting anything about its popularity. If news outlets do want to preserve the appearance of tweets, they might instead include screenshots that remove the portion showing replies/retweets/favorites. The Financial Times has started to show tweets in this way, with just the text.
Vox pop had its problems. But at least it featured real people. It’s time for media outlets to bring back the humans—and enforce guidelines on how to make sure they’re real.
Heidi Tworek is assistant professor of international history at the University of British Columbia. She is a non-resident fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.