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In defence of the (good) vox pop

When BBC Radio 5 Live had an 'In My Opinion' on the relevance and usefulness of the vox pop, I was instantly transported back to a Berkshire town and my first encounter with this tired staple of newsrooms. The editor had sent me - as the intern - to Wokingham, to ask people about living in what was then the most affluent or best town to live in the UK, I cannot recall which. As an anxious and shy person the vox pop is a real test of courage. It is character building - or the opposite. You spend time summoning up the nerves to stop a randomer, trying to find a friendly face amongst the busy crowd. Then you have to ask them a question that they probably do not care about and ask that question quickly - so that they don't look at you as if you have arrived from Mars and just carrying on walking.

It has always been the way that the newbies or interns in a newsroom are sent out to record vox pops. This is often a way to get the person out of the way for a bit to be honest. As students it is one of the early things you get to do on a journalism course. Whether there is any point to them is a question that has come up again recently, as more and more news bulletins contain pre-General Election voxes. In previous years we have had some comedy gold content from election vox pops. Brenda in Bristol for example. But is it worth hundreds of pointless vox pops for a rare piece of click bait?

I do not think it is as easy as saying yes or no. Vox pops are overused in news but given the right context and setting, they can add real value to a story and coverage. As for teaching, as Caroline Cheetham pointed out on X, it provides students with a way to learn microphone technique, how to ask open questions and also dealing with a (quite) stressful situation.

The problem is not vox pops themselves, it is how they are used or the reason people want them. Asking random people in the street about politics (or other general topics) serves very little purpose in my view. I simply do not care what people think. And there is a fixation (still) with getting balanced views. But what if the place you are in has most people thinking one way? That is just a reflection of that street/town. A vox pop is a quick capture of a few people's views. Yes it might literally mean 'voice of the population' but you are not trying to get a fully representative view. If you were you would be out recording for weeks!

At Sky News we always used to castigate journalists that would write 'these people in Milton Keynes have mixed views'. It is a terrible inline for a start, but it is also rubbish because getting mixed views was always seen as the point of a vox. I do not think that is true anymore, especially for situations where vox pops are useful. If you a speaking to people queueing for tickets to an event or students at a protest about tuition fees, you are not going to get mixed views. And that is the point. Finding out what this group of people think and why they are doing what they are doing is a good reason for a vox pop.

When I was walking around Wokingham in my early journalism days, I was terrified to stop people. The first two I spoke to refused to answer. Rejected and dejected too quickly, I then spent three hours aimlessly looking to find a friendly face, but without really trying. In the end, my fear of returning empty handed drove me to be more assertive and find some poor residents willing to answer me. When I got back, the news team had moved onto other stories (not surprisingly as they had considered sending out a search party!) and the recordings were never used. As a grumpy news editor and lecturer, I have asked for my fair share of vox pops - but never let them be wasted or made the person doing them feel undervalued. A good vox can brighten your content - whether in news or in a show - but the context and question has to be right. So I vote for the vox pop to stay, just use them less often please.

Tips for a good vox-pop

A clear reason for speaking to a group of people

Always ask open questions

Have a clear question/focus and prepare to ask follow-ups for stronger content

Be prepared to walk with people - so make sure you can move your equipment easily

Always record more than you think you need

Try and get a variety of voices (male, female, old, young etc) - even if you do not get a variety of opinion

Smile! Don't look like you are hating every minute of it (which you might be)


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