Isabelle Roughol – The J junkie

The tribulations of a young journalist and writer looking for work

Death to the “man on the street”

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Just like most people, I owe a lot to my parents. My journalistic skills owe them a lot, too. I could take hours listing the qualities of those two highly intelligent people, but I’d lose readers. Let me get to the point. My mother is a writer, among many other things, a keen observer of the media and a darn good speller. To her I owe my habit of pointing out every grammatical mistake journalists make on French public radio. I’m sure she’s got something to do with the fact that I can’t help but edit restaurant menus, too.

One of my mother’s major media pet peeve is TV’s uncontrollable urge to put a “man on the street” in every single story, as though that particular man (it can be a woman, really) held the key to some subtle, hidden stake in the story. The producer typically ends up wasting 5 or 6 seconds, so precious in TV news, for an “I am really mad about this” or “I wish they’d do something about that.”

I mention this because it seems a man has managed to become a professional “man on the street.” (Thanks Ken Sweet for pointing this out.) Greg Packer has apparently been quoted more than 100 times by U.S. news outlets. It’s not just a case of “right place, right time.” The guy makes a point to be everywhere a journalist could possibly need a man on the street: a concert, a president’s funeral, an iPhone line… He makes sure to be available for the journalist. I’m sure he’s had plenty of time to practice being quotable, which is a fine art. And we fall for it. Kinda sad to admit.

In the meantime, the guy has actually become worth quoting… about why guys like him shouldn’t be quoted. We have a habit of questioning the motives of politicians and many others, but there is no reason for an average Joe to lie to the press, right? Think again.

While Packer says “honesty is very important to me,” he does admit that about 5% of the time, “I’m making stuff up to get in the paper.” A Boston newspaper, for example, quoted him as saying he had a ticket for the 1999 baseball All-Star Game there when he really didn’t.

That’s what Packer had to say to Editor & Publisher. Slightly chilling, because, let’s face it, you can’t verify every single fact, such as who really has a ticket to a particular game, for every single story.

On my first day in the Santa Cruz office, my editor asked me to find a “man on the street” for my story. Turns out, it’s much harder than it looks. I must have stopped a dozen people before finding one who could actually talk about my topic. Once I found my “man on the street”, he really didn’t have much fascinating to say (surprise, surprise). What else is there to say about fireworks than “it’s pretty”? Bless my editor of the day, Sentinel copy chief Marc Desjardins, for letting me off-the-hook. He told me to forget about it “if it doesn’t add anything to the story.” Thank you! That’s what I’d like more journalists to say.

That and the really important question to ask Greg Packer: “Don’t you have a job?”

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Written by Isabelle Roughol

Saturday, 30 June, 2007 at 23:19

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