How do journalists find 'regular people' when they profile them for public interest articles?
October 18, 2006 9:25 PM   Subscribe

How do journalists find 'regular people' when they profile them for public interest articles?

All the time I see papers covering news on topics such as rising petrol prices, interest rates, decreasing/increasing standards for university admission, etc, which are accompanied by a smaller fluffier article profiling some regular joe who's in some way affected by the topic of the article. Usually they use a photo of the regular joe in front of a petrol pump/for sale sign/university campus to accompany both articles.

For example the article might be about a rumoured rise in interest rates and how it will affect home buyers, then the fluff piece will be a piece about Jack and Jill Smith, a young couple from Woodville Gardens who are just about to buy their first home. Or the article that prompted this question, about a university changing their medical degree admission requirements. The fluff piece profiled a local year 12 student who was hoping to get into medicine next year.

I can see how journalists would track down experts and analysts for insightful commentary, but how do they find these regular people?
posted by teem to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I used to work as a correspondent for a small-town weekly. Don't know if this reflects the methods employed by professionals, but when I needed the word of the man on the street, I went out on the street and looked for the man.

After an hour or so of harassing strangers, I would usually get some good quotes. Sure, I would waste my time on a bunch of chaff and disinteresting comments during these runs. But the reader gets to enjoy the benefits of editing, and see only the relevant quotes and quoted.

A few years ago, a nearby K-Mart was shutting down. A reporter for the local paper set up outside and solicited comments from shoppers. The one that wound up on the front page was some poor bastard who'd just put in his application and only found out about the store closure when the reporter asked him about it. Ouch!
posted by EatTheWeek at 9:43 PM on October 18, 2006

I just ask people on the street. I usually try to get a range of opinions. As noted above, editing works wonders.
posted by acoutu at 9:56 PM on October 18, 2006

As noted above, you just ask folk.

The streets are full of regular people with opinions, whose lives are affected by the issues of the day. Many of the these people are perfectly willing to speak to the media.

So, you go to places where the issue is happening (the uni campus, the petrol station, a new housing estate) and interview people.

The slightly longer answer would be:
For the petrol pump person, you go to the petrol station, with a photographer. Say hello to people at the pumps, introduce yourself as a reporter for X Media Outlet and fire away with the questions. If they don't want to talk with you, you approach the next person. When you find someone willing to talk, you ask how the rising price of petrol has affected them, get some details (age, where they live, what they do, how many kids etc) and, ta da, man (or woman) in the street opinion. If the petrol station owner kicks you out, you go to the place down the road.

Sometimes the story is sparked by the person profiled, so you already have your interview subject. For instance, an irate mother might phone the newsdesk to complain about changing uni admissions policies that will force her Billy to abandon his long cherished dream of become a pet neuro-surgeon. Billy will be interviewed.

If you can't get to a physical location, or if it would be somehow difficult to front up and directly ask questions, you'd get in touch with contacts and ask them if they know anyone who'd be willing to talk. Your contacts might be friends, or they might be people in the industry, or sector of government you're writing about. They may or may not come through.

Other methods include: the phone book; interview subjects supplied by PR people (not, obviously, recommended); and just people you know, or have met, or heard about, through covering a beat, or just out and about on other stories. ("Oh... remember that guy I met at that rally? Who said he was buying a new house? I'll give him a call.)
posted by t0astie at 9:57 PM on October 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

t0astie has it right.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:08 PM on October 18, 2006

Why thank-you. I've always been sort of curious if that's how it works elsewhere, actually.

(Teem, fwiw, I'm in Australia.)
posted by t0astie at 10:34 PM on October 18, 2006

I've noticed reading the NYT that, in a story about an issue of national scope (i.e., that's not specific to a particular area, but to the entire US), they'll have a quote from, say, a random guy in a small town in Minnesota. In this kind of case, why Minnesota (or Wyoming, or whatever)? Is it because they already have a reporter in the area doing another story?
posted by Burns Ave. at 11:18 PM on October 18, 2006

I've shot local TV news, and as soon as you hit your light bar ON button, you've got to beat the regular people that want to wave to their friends on TV out of your frame with a stick. In my experience, average Americans are surprisingly candid when a TV camera is pointed in their direction. Nearly everybody has seen themselves on videotape, somewhere, by now, and most people are of the opinion they look better saying something, than trying to hide their faces, or be cute. So, given half a chance to be themselves, they'll answer questions truthfully, and with some respect for the audience of which they are sure to be a part, if you can tell them what their air date will be.

And all media outlets get a ton of mail, e-mail, and calls. It's impossible to miss the public's opinion, or go dry for quotes, when you're getting piles of the stuff, in 20 lb mail crates and email and voicemail inboxes, everyday. Read your mail, pick up a phone for air or publication release (if needed), and you rarely have to go out of the studio or news room for pithy comments from the average Joe.
posted by paulsc at 11:22 PM on October 18, 2006

Sometimes lazy feature writers will ask their friends, or friends of friends, etc. See the MediaBistro forum "Sources for Stories""for many examples.
posted by scratch at 6:22 AM on October 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine used to be on a mailing list for feature article writers. He'd get this long list once a day with requests for interview subjects, e.g. "Looking for people in their 20s who have trouble with handwriting thanks to their computer jobs. Contact me at...." Don't know how common this is but it was a clever way to drum up relevant people.
posted by werty at 6:24 AM on October 19, 2006

Burns Ave.: The New York Times has stringers, or local freelancers, located throughout the country. One of my former professors in St. Louis was a New York Times correspondent who covered Missouri/Illinois issues, as well as the Midwest's response to national and international issues.
posted by limeonaire at 8:29 AM on October 19, 2006

For man on the street, you hit the streets and talk to as many strangers as necessary. For something more specific, like a story on dyslexic carpenters who enjoy motocross during the full moon, internet message boards are a godsend.
posted by TheGoldenOne at 9:13 AM on October 19, 2006

I can safely say that for me, and for my colleagues when I was a jorno, the man on the street was the most feared.person.ever. I had no problem talking to politicians and professionals, but when it came to talking to common folk it always scared the bejesus out of me.

Knowing this, I forced myself to knock on a lot of doors when it came to stories that affected people in X neighborhood. Going into a Starbucks to find man-on-the-street? Kinda scary. Ringing doorbells? Very scary, but you get the best stories that way, and once you're doing it it's kinda fun. As others have said above, editing works wonders.
posted by Happydaz at 9:31 AM on October 19, 2006

The other method is through charities and official organisations. Like a TV show I (very briefly) worked on was doing a thing about domestic violence, and to get the guests they just went to the local domestic violence charity and asked if they knew anyone who wanted to talk.
posted by cillit bang at 10:34 AM on October 19, 2006

I used to do a weekly 'the wo/man on the street reviews the latest film releases' thing when I was just starting out, and the hard part wasn't finding people, it was getting rid of the crowd that had formed when you'd done all the mini-interviews you needed - I actually had to run away and jump in a cab on a couple of occasions due to scallies demanding that they should get in the paper instead of the people I'd just interviewed. I won't even go into the horrors of doing vox pops for tacky dance music magazines at provincial nightclubs.

There is another regularly-used source of normal people, of course: the journalist's mates.
posted by jack_mo at 11:40 AM on October 19, 2006

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