Talk is Cheap
Supporters say streeters show us what the public thinks. Critics call them lazy journalism. What are they really worth?
It’s 9 a.m. and senior producer Dayna Gourley and executive producer Alan Habbick gather in a conference room at the CBC headquarters to discuss and assign the stories of the day. Within the hour, they will assign reporter Marivel Taruc to cover the death of former NHL player and coach Pat Quinn, which has shocked local fans. Quinn, a beloved sports figure, played defence for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the late 1960s and came back to coach the team from 1998 to 2006. As Taruc makes her way past her co-workers’ cubicles, she decides the best way to showcase Quinn’s legacy is to first speak to current Leafs players and then to some hockey fans.
At 11:20 a.m., Taruc finishes her research, gathers her things and heads out the door with Chris Mulligan, her videographer for the day. She starts at the Leafs’ practice facility, where she joins other reporters gathering in the locker room for a scrum around defencemen Morgan Rielly and Cody Franson. Standing in the circle, Taruc finds her link between the former coach and the current players: both Rielly and Franson looked up to Quinn. The next stop is Maple Leaf Square at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, where she and Mulligan will approach pedestrians to share their thoughts on camera.
She hopes to give a voice to the average person—something streeter segments have done for decades. To reporters, it’s either a quick way to gauge public opinion or useful filler on slow news days. For viewers, such segments are either entertaining or pointless. For the industry, devoting reporters to the task is increasingly becoming a luxury, and Mulligan is lucky to have one on this story. Faced with decreasing resources, assignment producers cannot afford to assign streeter segments to reporters. Now, camera operators must often do these shoots alone, learning interviewing techniques and research methods that were once reserved for reporters.
A long-time staple of television news, streeters are a fast and easy way to find out what the public thinks—journalists ask questions, people give answers—but they are also a target for critics because they don’t always provide viewers with any new information or insight. “When used well, they give a voice to the ordinary people in our stories,” says Jeremy Copeland, a lecturer from the information and media studies faculty at Western University in London, Ontario. “It makes for great TV and, at times, fills a hole within our story—but it’s not great journalism.”
Taruc and Mulligan arrive at Maple Leaf Square and set up. “As streeters go, this is an easy one to do,” the reporter says. “Even if you were one of the few who’s never heard of Quinn, you know who the Toronto Maple Leafs are.” But the reporting technique relies on the luck of the draw, which means the quality depends on how informed random people are of the day’s news. In this case, the story is about Quinn, not just the Leafs. A common criticism of streeters is that unprepared people answering questions about topics they simply don’t understand can be of limited value to viewers. “There is a risk that they can be a lazy way to do journalism,” says Copeland. “Sometimes journalists can’t come up with a creative way to find another voice for their stories, so they go out and do a couple of streeters and they think that’s it, they’ve covered it.”
The questions are another problem. When the approach works, it’s thanks to a reporter who knows what to ask and how to ask it. “You can’t generalize what you’re saying—you have to be specific,” says Susan Harada, the associate director of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication. “They have to be used carefully. That’s where journalists make the mistake.” Taruc knows that how she asks her questions is crucial to an effective story. To make her subjects feel at ease, she poses questions that are direct and simple.
Of the dozen people she approaches today, half agree to be interviewed. She first asks them if they’re hockey fans, then moves on to questions about Quinn’s legacy. Some know about his history with the Leafs, while others are not sure who he was. From half of those interviews, Taruc generates enough for her story. “I know with talking to all those people, that one person is giving me the content I need.”
One interview does stand out from the others. An older gentleman speaks about an incident that has since become part of NHL lore: the time Quinn, playing for the Leafs, body-checked Bobby Orr and left the legendary Boston Bruin lying on the ice unconscious. “I remembered when he levelled the great Bobby Orr, way back then,” the man tells Taruc. “The Bruins weren’t really happy with him.”
Even with strong answers like that, streeters raise concerns about whose opinion matters most. Reporters have to be careful they don’t make one person’s point of view represent a whole community. That’s especially crucial for more contentious issues. “You are at the mercy of the people you come across on the street,” Taruc says. “If they share the same ideas on a story, then you don’t have a variety of opinion.”
When the technique works, a bond forms between the subject and the reporter. But these days, reporters are making those bonds less frequently. More and more, videographers shoot streeters and give the footage to an editor. Luke Yung was the go-to cameraman and streeter interviewer for Rogers TV for six years. “It is easier when there is a reporter or assistant to help, like when I was covering the Toronto garbage strike and the crowd was getting a little chaotic,” Yung says. Ultimately, though, he understands the budget cuts. “In the end, the reporters aren’t really needed; they are not even seen. It’s the people’s opinion that matters.”
That’s why many news outlets rely more and more on an even cheaper way to show public opinion: social media, especially Twitter. “You can see conversations happening in real time,” says Sylvia Stead, public editor at The Globe and Mail. “Getting public feedback, thoughts and views through Twitter, Facebook or streeters and sharing them—it’s so important for the media to realize that we all take part in discussing and shaping the news.”
But Stead adds that social media streeters make it hard to identify the truth. In her December 2012 column, “A Valuable Lesson in Using Social Media for Journalism,” she cites the example of a woman who identified herself online as a lawyer, but it later became clear that was unlikely. Of course, people can pretend to be someone else on television, too. As Stead wrote, “It’s a reminder that editors and reporters should do all they can to confirm the identities of the people they quote.”
As Taruc’s 5 p.m. deadline approaches, Mulligan heads to CBC’s basement offices. He slides the media card into the computer. A senior editor quickly cuts the footage as the senior producer vets the script. They run the final take in the office control room. Meanwhile, Taruc moves to the Hockey Hall of Fame for a live hit that will precede her piece. She doesn’t get a chance to see it, but that’s normal and she’s satisfied. It’s one of the hundreds of streeters she’s done in her career—and while it may not have been the best way to pay tribute to someone’s legacy, it made the six o’clock news.
Jennifer Joseph was a writer and multimedia editor for the Spring 2015 Review.