The first commentary of the year could be devoted to predicting the media’s fortunes over the coming 12 months but that will have to wait. Instead I want to start a campaign to ban vox pops from television, radio, and their print equivalents.
When Jacinda Ardern announced last Thursday she would stand down from her prime ministerial role, reporters ran into the streets, microphone in hand, intent on waylaying hapless pedestrians.
I have no idea how reporters choose their targets in the great vox pop hunt. There is no discernible demographic pattern or attempt to collect representative views.
Far from being the ‘voice of the people’ that the Latin derivation — vox populi — would suggest, these sound and vision grabs from the pavement are no more than off-the-top-of-the-head comments by people who have been given little or no time to think. They fall back to their instincts or, worse, their prejudices.
Vox pops are usually the work of a single journalist, sent out to get the views of people in any street with the requisite foot traffic. And often as not it is just that — a single street in a single suburb of a single town or city. Set up, wait for the first stranger to pass, and hope like hell they have some idea what you are talking about.
Once a few comments — preferably from people who do not look or sound alike — are in the can, the unfortunate reporter who drew the short straw can pack up and go back to the newsroom.
Bulletin editors then present this entirely unscientific sampling as the opinion of the nation. It is as if the spectral image of a medieval monk has appeared in the edit suite, pointed an authoritative finger at the editor, and intoned: Vox populi, Vox Dei (The voice of the people is the voice of God).
News websites follow the same pattern with vox pops but add a further dimension. They randomly sample social media and lift equally random quotes that collectively are characterised as widely-held opinion.
Reasonably intelligent people should see these opinions for what they are, and dismiss any notion that they represent the view of the community at large.
I certainly kept them in perspective whenever I was exposed to them.
However, a dimension has been added that I had not previously discerned. The voices have become more strident and significantly less guarded. Irrespective of the fact they do not represent broad-based public opinion, they are hard to ignore.
Following Jacinda Ardern’s resignation announcement radio and television interviewees talked of her destruction of the country. In print she was written down as the worst prime minister in the country’s history, and a compilation of Twitter comments listed pejorative terms of which ‘evil’ was probably the least offensive.
Anonymity on transnational social media platforms swept away the limits that had been formed by libel laws, and complex changes in society gave rise to deep-seated angst or a grievance mentality. The combination of these factors has led not to a shifting of boundaries but a rejection of them. People feel they can say what they like, irrespective of how fleeting its relationship with truth, in order to give vent to their fired-up emotions.
If this sounds like I am building an argument against free speech, I am not. Countless scholars and jurists recognise limits to free speech, mostly based on principles of harm. I am a member of that school.
Comments such as those by Alison Mau in her latest Sunday Star Times column on the level of misogyny faced by Jacinda Ardern and many other women cry out for boundaries and consequences.
I have become more and more distressed by what I see on social media and my anxiety is heightened by recognising that we may not be able to return the bolting horse to the barn, let alone secure the door.
However, I do think we can avoid imbuing the voices of angry individuals with the power derived from suggesting they speak for others, and giving them a platform that to prove it.
Broadcasting standards impose limits on what will be put to air, although there is no requirement for Vox poppers to back their opinions with facts. And the gloves come off on news websites where standing on a cold and windy street corner with camera and microphone is replaced by an easy cut-and-paste from Twitter feeds. In both cases, however, the mere selection and airing of a view invests it with standing that may be well in advance of its worth.
Vox pops have long had their detractors. I recall a column by Guardian journalist Catherine Bennett a few years ago in which she castigated the BBC (and others) for their use. The gist of what she said was that if you want to gauge public opinion, don’t do a vox pop. But, to be fair, there are those — particularly television news producers— who defend them. The merit, they say, lies in giving ordinary people a voice.
However, if it is merely an opinion from an individual with no expertise in the subject, why publish it? If it uses unverified statements to fuel an overheated and severely polarised discourse, where is its value?
Sample-based opinion polls earn their validity on the quality of their scientific methodology. Focus groups prove their worth by the representative nature of their panels. There is no such methodology in standing in Lambton Quay or Queen Street waiting for someone to agree to talk to you. Nor are normal news-gathering practices (such as asking what grounds a person has for the comment they just made) in evidence.
I say ban them.