Vox-pops can’t ensure the voices of people in poverty are really heard, says our new Poverty Media Coordinator Gavin Aitchison.
Excuse me, do you have a moment? I’m from the local paper and we’re interested in people’s opinions on a story we’re running tomorrow…
If you’ve heard those words (or similar), then the chances are you’ve been vox-popped.
One minute, you were going about your day. The next you’d been selected at random to be a voice of the people, a representative of your town or city.
If you haven’t been in a vox pop yourself, you’ll probably have come across them: a row of headshots in your local paper, perhaps, or a few short, sharp interviews on TV or radio.
They’re a rite of passage for journalists across the country. If you can’t brazenly buttonhole someone in the street about tomorrow’s news, withstanding the sporadic unprintable abuse, then the chances are you’d struggle with tougher assignments. Bring back some colourful quotes and headshots, however, and you’re well on your way. So works the mind of a news editor.
In my early years as a reporter I carried out vox pops on all manner of issues. What do you think of parking charges here? Do you like this new building? What’s a fair rate of council tax? What do you think of these new sweets from the local factory? Do you believe in aliens? I could go on…
Raw opinions invariably spark discussion and debate
Vox pops have their merits. They bring real people into sometimes-complex stories. They give a refreshing dose of unpolished reality alongside the careful on-message statements from politicians. On a simpler level, faces brighten up newspaper pages, and raw opinions invariably spark discussion and debate.
They have their limits though. Sometimes, you need to take time to let people talk about what they want to talk about, not to give an off-the-cuff response to your topic. You need to let people not just fill in the blanks on your page, but to fill a blank page of their own.
Vox pops are engaging, but there’s little room for new ideas or nuance
Vox pop interviews invariably elicit quick responses to simple questions. “What do you think of the proposed congestion charge?” – “It’s a disgrace, I’ll never drive my car into this city again.” They’re engaging, yes, but there’s little room for new ideas or nuance.
Through our Voices From The Margins project, we’ve sought to do something different. We’ve been asking people around the country to get together and just talk – about the election but. more broadly. about society. Sure, we’ve asked some questions along the way, but we’ve sought to spend proper time with groups of people and generally to let the conversation flow – and it has certainly flowed.
In Meadow Well in North Shields, people spoke about their pride in the community but their disillusionment with the nature of politics and politicians, and revealed a range of challenges – the financial burden of being told you need a passport for identification, the impact of sanctions, and the way in which people’s struggles are belittled or pooh-poohed.
In York, homeless residents told us over breakfast about the loss of once-reliable factory jobs, high housing costs, the city’s mental health care crisis, and – again – problems with the benefits system.
People in Sowerby Bridge told of the amazing community spirit after the floods of 2015, and their wish that such spirit could become the norm. They talked of their ideas for turning old mill buildings into social housing, and their frustrations when apparent job vacancies turned out just to be fishing trips by agencies.
And in Hull last week, people told of their pride at changing people perceptions of the city, but spoke movingly of the embarrassment of having to rely on food banks to survive and the way in which pride can make tough situations even harder.
Amid it all, we have heard answers to questions that had not been asked. That’s why it’s so important to ensure the voices of people in poverty are truly heard, and why vox pops are no match for proper conversation.
Voices from the Margins is supported by Church Action on Poverty, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and the Poverty Alliance. Visit the Voices from the Margins website to read more of people’s stories.