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The See Through News Vox Pox Project

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Our open source public media literacy project to combat the power of media manipulation

The Vox Pox Project, is based on our storytelling-based methodology.

The first requirement, like all See Through News projects, is for it to be engaging an interesting on its own merits, before we introduce any hint of a ‘green’ agenda.

In the case of the Vox Pox Project, this engagement comes from editing person-on-the-street interviews in local communities on matters of immediate local interest, exploring topics of universal concern, such as ‘Do you feel safe living in XXX?’.

Having engaged local people with local issues, the deeper purpose of the Vox Pox Project is to educate the public about the power of media manipulation. In particular, the apparently straightforward trick of the ‘Vox Pop’, or ‘Person on the Street interview’.

A Pox on your vox pops

TV journalists and filmmakers conducting conventional vox pops (from the Latin, vox populi, ‘voice of the people’) know them to be unscientific and highly manipulable.

There is an ethical argument to justify them if used responsibly. When ordinary people express views in everyday terms, it’s more memorable, and impactful, than a dry chart, or hearing it from a politician or journalist.

The same information, that if expressed in a graphic of a recent opinion poll, could send everyone out of the room to made a cup of tea, can become a national talking point if uttered in relatable terms by a relatable person.

For example, when a British Prime Minister called an unexpected snap election shortly after the previous one, the BBC could have put up a graphic of a scientifically-conducted, but dull, opinion poll. Or they could interview Brenda from Bristol, whose exasperated ‘Not aNOTHER one?!‘ became an overnight viral meme.

Even ‘ethical’ vox pops, however, are the opposite of what they appear to be. Vox pops hardly ever even pretend to be proper random surveys, they are missions to fill in lines in a script. The momoent vox pop crews have ‘got what we need’, they head back to the office.

The purpose of the Vox Pox project is not only to expose how easy it is to manipulate ‘public opinion’, but also to reveal the extraordinary things people can say if you ask genuinely open-ended questions with no agenda in mind, and listen carefully and empathetically to the answers.

Vox Pox Rules

Here’s now it works:

  • Stop local residents at random.
  • If they agree to be interviewed, start filming.
  • Ask them an open-ended question like ‘Do you feel safe living in XXX?’.
  • Let them speak until they run out of words. Interrupt only for clarification.
  • Once they’ve answered, say ‘I only asked if you if you felt safe, but didn’t specify what the danger was. I’ve f ound that people tend to talk about whatever they feel most anxious about – young parents mention traffic, old people talk about people not wearing masks, people with dark skin fear racists attacks, young women raise sexual assault, dog-owners talk of dog-napping etc. With this in mind, let me ask you the question again – do you feel safe living in XXX?.
  • Then let them speak until they run out of words.
  • Turn off the camera and tell them. ‘This is what we’re going to do with this interview – if you’re not happy with it, just say so and we’ll delete the footage in front of you right now. If you’re OK with it, we’ll upload the results to our social media channels. We’re going to compile 4 different edits from sound bites of interviews like the one you’ve just done.
    • The Good – the ‘Hello Magazine’ version, will make XXX look like Disneyland.
    • The Bad – the ‘Daily Mail’ version, will make XXX look like Mogadishu.
    • The Nuanced -the See Through News version, will be unexpected, unpredictable, and interesting. (Incidentally, nearly all the sound bites used for this version come from the 2nd time we ask the question).
    • The Uncut -your entire interview from the moment we turned the camera on to the moment we turned it off. You’ll see precisely how we manipulated your words in the previous three edits.

Pilots

Pilot versions can been seen on this Playlist on the See Through News YouTube channel.

The Salisbury, Wiltshire, version was based on 16 interviews conducted over two shoots on different days and locations. The Nuanced options were so rich, we made 4 different versions.

The concept was then road-tested in Frome, Somerset. We gave ourselves a two-hour window on a rainy afternoon, with few people around, during which we conducted 10 interviews. The concept and format remained robust, even under such constraints.

Join In!

See Through News invites your own contributions, which we’ll upload to our YouTube channel and Facebook group.

This is an idea training exercise for journalism and media students, but can be conducted by anyone with an interest in local community, local news, and media ethics.

More detailed instructions on filming and sending us your own videos can be found at the See Through Vox Pox Project Facebook Group.

Salisbury: The Good
Salisbury: The Bad
Salisbury: The Nuanced – ‘Not Too Bad’
Salisbury: The Nuanced – ‘Us & Them’
Salisbury: The Nuanced – ‘Safety’

Vox Pox Project in Community Filmmaking

We incorporated the Vox Pox project into our community filmmaking project pilot, 1 Sunday Morning, 4 Films: doing good in…Finchley, training novice local community filmmaker volunteers to conduct Vox Pox on local people.