Too many stories depend almost entirely on officials for information and sound bites. Watch a newscast or read a news site on any given day and notice who gets to talk. Are most of them people with titles and business cards? Would those stories be more interesting, engaging and authentic if they included other voices?
Maybe. Including “vox pops” or person-on-the-street sound bites or quotes won’t automatically make a story stronger. Often, they’re just window dressing. I can’t count the number of times I was sent out to get citizens’ reactions to some development or other and most of the people I talked to had no idea what I was asking about.
Does that mean the public is stupid or woefully uninformed? Not necessarily. At least half the problem with this kind of reporting is that we ask the wrong people the wrong questions.
Choose the right place
Where do you go to find people for reaction stories? A public place near the office with lots of people, right? It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that few shoppers or commuters have informed opinions about every issue you could possibly bring up.
When you’re working on a reaction story, you’ll have better luck getting usable sound or quotes if you find people who actually care about the topic. That means you have to go to a place where they’re likely to gather. Need parents for an education story? Try a school parking lot or a soccer field. A health study? Ask people going and coming from a free clinic instead of a supermarket. It takes more effort, obviously, but the payoff is usually worth it.
Ask the right questions
Finding the right people is only half the solution, though. You need to ask questions differently than you would when talking to officials or other people who are accustomed to being interviewed. Don’t start with an agenda and ask them to fill in the blanks. It’s almost never productive to ask what people think of a pending proposal to…whatever.
Ask open-ended questions about the topic in general to learn what people are really concerned about and what they think should be done. If they don’t tell you what you expect to hear, maybe that’s your story.
Stories, not anecdotes
“Real people” often show up at the top of stories and never appear again. You know the drill: “Joe Smith has been looking for work for seven months, since he was laid off from his job at the manufacturing plant. He’s not alone….”
Anecdotal leads turn people into props or window dressing. If you really want to tell a character-driven story, the story has to be in large part about the character. And that doesn’t just mean bringing him or her back at the end. You know that drill too: “For Joe Smith, the bad news on unemployment means he’ll have to keep looking.”
Stories are stronger when characters get more than a hello and goodbye. An anecdote may be a good way to hook the audience but central characters will keep them reading or watching all the way to the end.