And Smoker Shall Speak Unto Nation

And now some news just in from the Department of Unintended Consequences.

As a young journalist, fresh out of college in the days before blogs and 24-hour rolling texts and emails, I learned the art of the vox pop.

It’s one of easiest ways to fill column inches. The recipe for the news editor is simple:

  1. Take the hot topic of the day – say, the invasion of Iraq, or Victoria Beckham’s new hairdo – whatever, really, so long as people can have an opinion.
  2. Dispatch the nearest junior reporter or work placement student to a public place where they might find people who have an opinion. (It helps if the place they go is in some way related to the story – if it’s health service cutbacks, it could be the local hospital – but this is optional.)
  3. Don’t allow them back in from the cold until they’ve gathered half a dozen usable quotes.

The joy of working with print as opposed to audio or video is that if your subject turns out to be opinionated but incoherent you can help them along a bit. For example:

Work experience student: “Would you say this makes a mockery of the government’s manifesto promise?”
Unwitting interview subject: “Uh, yeah.”
Resulting copy: “Mrs Smith said, ‘It makes a mockery of the government’s manifesto promise.'”

This entirely unscientific survey instantly transforms even the driest downpage story into an appetising page lead that shows just how in touch your publication is with its readers. For superlative examples of the art, look no further than America’s Finest News Source.

The trouble in my day as a reporter was that you always needed to conduct the vox pop when the gainfully employed were safely ensconced in their factories and offices.

We tried to get a cross-section of the community but often ended up exclusively soliciting the views of senior citizens (“Hanging never did me any harm when I was a nipper!”), stay-at-home parents (“Sorry I’m not making much sense, I only got two hours’ sleep last night.”), and the long-term sick (“I wrote to that Tony Blair. 27 times…”).

Maybe the absence of the full-time employed from our vox pop demographic was a symptom of a bigger issue. These people weren’t in our surveys because they weren’t in the public realm.

Today it struck me that times have changed, and for once the Internet and social media have nothing to do with it.

The giveaway is in the first paragraph of this Guardian article, “City Voices: ‘I’m just happy if I can keep my job, to be honest'”:

In the City yesterday, those who stepped out for a much-needed smoke stared moodily into space, while others avoided the television cameras that had been set up outside the Royal Exchange.

The unlikely huddles that form on chilly street corners may be the result of our nation’s enlightened smoking ban, but the unintended consequence is a myriad of Cluetrain-esque breaches in the boundaries that organisations create within and around themselves.

Inside corporations, employees slowly killing themselves together form relationships that transcend the org chart. Serendipitous conversations occur in those five-minute fag breaks. It’s a secret society that we non-smokers can never hope to penetrate.

And outside? Well now they’re outside, the smokers are fair game for the vox popping reporter. That long exhale you can hear is the intern’s sigh of relief: here’s someone in a suit who I can question. Even better, he’s relaxed, and isn’t going anywhere for a few minutes. “Excuse me, do you mind telling me how the financial crisis is affecting you?”

So what I’m wondering is, what proportion of vox pop participants are people who popped out for a cigarette? How much more likely are you to be vox popped if you’re a smoker? And what greater influence might this give you in the national debate? I think the media needs to cough up some answers.

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