“Man on the street" interviews are designed to get raw, unscripted reactions from the public on any given issue. Of course, they’re not limited to men or the street. With firm purpose and fair questions, you can use this technique in any public venue, from a city park to an airport lounge. The idea is to generate a representative sample of public opinion on the topic being investigated.
Know Your Topic and Questions Beforehand
Whether interviewing live for a television news station or getting quotes for a newspaper article, you’ll have a hard time interviewing random people if you don’t know the topic yourself. Research the topic beforehand, so no answer surprises you. If you’re doing a story on immigration reform, familiarize yourself with issues and arguments on both sides of the political aisle, and then formulate questions in the fairest, most neutral way possible. You never want subjects to feel they’re being led on or manipulated. Keep questions brief, simple and to the point, and avoid questions that would lead to "yes" or "no" answers, such as "Do you support immigration reform?" Instead, try to capture the thinking behind your subject's opinion: "What are your greatest concerns about changing current immigration laws?"
Choose an Appropriate Venue
Remember, these interviews are designed to get a diverse representative sample of public opinion. Avoid places where opinions may be homogeneous. Pick a venue used by a lot of different people, such as a public park or a shopping mall. If conducting interviews on private property, such as outside a grocery store, obtain permission from the site supervisor. Don’t be upset if you’re asked to leave, as some businesses don’t allow interviews.
Find Diverse People
It is a tricky business in a crowded venue deciding which people to approach for questioning. You should never let preconceived notions or personal biases affect your random sampling. Be generous and willing to talk with anyone who wants to talk. At the same time, if you realize you’ve only interviewed a certain demographic, such as elderly white men, make an effort to talk to some women, or men of a different age and ethnicity. Interview the most diverse sample of people you can. Before questioning, get their names, their state or city of residence, and their age if possible. Ask for any other information that could be relevant to your story. For example, if you’re covering a holiday parade, ask the person how many years they’ve been coming to the event.
Approach People in a Respectful Manner
Nothing will sabotage your interview more than being too pushy or flat-out rude. When approaching people for questioning, identify yourself, tell them about your story, and ask them politely if they would like to participate. If they say no, thank them and move on. If they say yes, then begin, but don’t overwhelm them with pointed questions right away. Make sure they understand they’re entering the public record, and address any concerns they may have. Once questioning begins, give your subject plenty of time to respond, likely no more than five minutes. Redirect if necessary, but don’t interrupt. If someone becomes upset or agitated, don’t engage; thank him for his time and move on.
Keep the Best Interviews
You may get more interviews than you can actually use. This happens if your topic is popular or trending at the moment, or if you’ve chosen a particularly crowded venue. If this is the case, once back in the office, select interviews that you believe are the most informative and representative of your topic. If the majority of respondents were for an issue, then state this, while providing representative clips or quotes. If you found one dissenter on the same issue, point this out and include that dissenting interview. If people were evenly split on an issue, then they should have equal space and time in your story. Try to get at least ten interviews for a given topic. Your editor may want more or fewer sources, depending on the story.
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