The practice is known as the POS, or by the less politically correct and old-fashioned MOS (for man on the street). It is mostly used on local newscasts, but networks also air their share of such interviews.
On the few occasions when it's done properly, the POS can help listeners and viewers understand the context of a story and relate to it. Sometimes, the POS is the best way to give a local angle to a national or international story. Unfortunately, most POS interviews in broadcast newscasts are vacuous at best and frequently misleading and irresponsible.
"Maybe a POS adds color to a story, but it usually adds no substance," says TV news consultant Joe Rovitto of Clemensen & Rovitto in Pittsburgh.
Jim Turpin, executive news director at KAKE-TV in Wichita, Kansas, agrees. "How can you possibly gauge public sentiments by going out and talking to 10 people on the street? If you hired a polling company that only talked to 10 people, or if Nielsen based its rating of newscasts on just 10 viewers, you'd go nuts" at the ridiculousness of it.
There are some instances in which the interviews have a legitimate place in a newscast, news directors say. One is to buttress a scientific survey. "You can take some raw numbers and support them by what people are saying, using a couple of quick POS interviews for one percentage and a couple of other interviews to show the other percentage, and that can be an effective way of telling the story," says Bob Richardson, news director at WMBD-TV in Peoria, Illinois.
Frank Graham, president of the consulting firm McHugh & Hoffman of Detroit, believes the interviews are useful when they're conducted with ordinary people who are personally affected by or involved in a story. For example, residents in a neighborhood hit by a crime wave may have opinions on the situation that those outside the neighborhood would find interesting.
"But just getting a cross section of random opinions is not enough," Graham says. "There must be valuable information in what the people say, or it is meaningless to the other viewers."
And Janice Gin, executive producer of KGO-TV in San Francisco, endorses the POS as a "good way to hear from different people who are part of the community." But she believes the voices must be diverse. "I think we may go to the same street corner too often," she says.
The biggest concern many news executives have with POS interviews is that they may be misleading. "POS interviews are easy to skew or twist, particularly on political stories," says Mike Freedman, general manager of the CBS radio network.
Another problem, Richardson and others agree, is when the interviews become predictable. "Why keep asking people about what President Clinton says or does?" says Turpin. "They say the same things every time, depending on their political viewpoint, and it adds nothing to your newscast."
Sometimes the bias or ignorance of the reporter or photographer compiling the interviews distorts the outcome. "It's so subjective," Turpin says. "Your [staffers] may not be as well versed on the issue as you would like them to be. And although we try hard not to let our own opinions be part of our work, subconsciously they [are], because we're all human."
Richardson is disgusted by some of the stories he sees. "The live camera in a bar on St. Patrick's Day [with the reporter] interviewing drunks is one of the worst," he says. "Tie-ins with a network [entertainment] show that was on just before your newscast usually are fairly worthless, too."
The technique has its roots in print. A popular feature at many newspapers was a daily question answered by a handful of readers whose photographs appeared with their comments.
Back in the early days of television news, the interviews were "a way to fill up time in a newscast," says Rovitto.
Not much has changed.
"Today, newsrooms have an awful lot of time to fill with not a lot of staff," Rovitto says. "Sometimes, the MOS interviews find their way into newscasts almost out of logistical necessity and not out of good news judgment."
Graham, Gin and Turpin say too many news operations use the interviews as a crutch because they are easy to do.
"We just have to do a better job of thinking how we can cover stories," Turpin says. "When we rely on the POS, we're just not doing our jobs."
One of the most inane, worthless and overused story techniques in radio and television news is the "people on the street" interview: Three or four people give their opinions on a specific question in quick, short sound bites, purportedly to convey the public's sentiments on a topic.