Sunday, December 9, 2007

Real people, NOT

One of the great fads in newspaper journalism is the desire to have "real" people inserted into all stories.

That's real, as in reality television real, or in real life, not real at all. Editors love to send reporters to the nearest mall, college student union or street corner to get comments on some breaking event from a "real" person.

Back when Magic Johnson announced his AIDS affliction, I was sent to a local mall to sample opinion from "real" people about what they thought about Johnson's announcement. The first problem was to explain to people what I was asking them about.

First, many of them hadn't heard the announcement (they were at the mall for gosh sakes) so it took some time to kind of run down what Johnson had announced and what it was I was looking for. Then there were those few folks who didn't know what AIDS were (this was the early 1990s) and so the lesson continued. All this to get the predictable "I feel very sorry for him and I wish him well," said Marge Firchberger, of Atlantis, Michigan. The quote is meaningless and trite, but the editor is ecstatic because suddenly the story has a real person in it.

There are thousands of examples of this. Reporters don't like to do these stories and frankly, readers should be insulted when they read these lame quotes. Don't blame the folks who provide the quotes, they are just being polite to a local reporter. Besides, who doesn't want their name in the paper even if it is about something for which they have no expertise.

But in the hallowed editorial meeting rooms this is what passes for outstanding editorial decision making. All a national story with no local connection ever needs is for some poor slob at the mall to add his two cents. It's frustratingly stupid, but you'll read an example of this in almost every newspaper, every day. Readers deserve better.

Later we'll talk about "real" people in election coverage. That's really a hoot.


Anonymous said...

I love the story about the Port Huron, Mi, paper where they had to get a minority viewpoint on stories.

Since they had such a small minority population in Port Huron the same few people ended up in stories over and over again. Nothing like a Gannett mandate

Jim of L-Town said...

Dear anonymous:

Thanks for your addition. The idea that any one person, picked out of a crowd can speak for another whole group of people is absurd. It is insulting to the group of people, whoever they are, who are being singled out.
But that's what passes for news today.
Every newspaper has its favorite "quote" people. There are times when quotes from folks - neighbors of a crime scene, families of a victim or those directly involved in a particular news event - are very helpful. But it should occur naturally and not because some editor is so devoid of imagination that his/her answer to everything is "get a random quote."
Thanks for stopping by and please come back and tell your friends.