Then there’s the opposite problem—the sources shoved at us by think tanks, foundations, and all kinds of advocacy groups eager to make journalists’ lives easier and further their agendas by steering us to pre-screened sources that won’t stray too far off whatever reservation these organizations live on. That means being wary of those anecdotes which come from story banks maintained by various advocacy groups. This is why man-on-the street interviews are so refreshing. Pre-screening people for man-on-the-street interviews, though, is a journalistic no-no. I speak to the first five, six, or seven people who agree to chat. The interviews are what they are—no pre-screening, no searching for a point of view, no political litmus test, no he said-she said balance.
Their comments inject ordinary voices into the mix of PR-molded news and advocacy spin and push back against the reportage du jour, described by the late Columbia University journalism professor James Carey as “a journalism that reports the continuing stream of expert opinion, but because there is no agreement among experts, it is more like observing talk-show gossip and petty manipulation than bearing witness to the truth.”
The questions that Mike H. and others had about the Dan Korman interview illustrate a larger point. Reporters do need to get out and talk to ordinary people—and they need to make sure that those people aren’t pre-selected. They can’t take the easy way out and talk to their friends, family, or colleagues and pass them off as men and women on the street. We hope that’s not what NPR did.