“Man in the street” is used to evoke the idea of the average voter, with mainstream political opinions and interests.
Merriam Webster notes that the phrase was first used in 1831, to mean an average or ordinary person. The phrase likely reflected an increased interest in the political opinions of average men, since they were becoming enfranchised for the first time. Historians estimate that by 1840, most white men in America had the right to vote; before that, most states only allowed white male property owners to cast votes at the ballot box.
Today, journalists often conduct “man on the street” interviews following major news events. Such interviews aim to understand how the average citizen feels about major events, and to understand what their views and their concerns are. Man on the street interviews also aim to understand how much the average person knows about recent news events.
Some “man on the street” interviews also aim to collect a range of views about the major issues of the day, to see where popular sentiment lies.
In 2016, the late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel provoked some controversy put out a series of “idiot on the street” interviews. Kimmel’s staff interviewed men and women who were walking down Hollywood Boulevard to see what they knew about the day’s politics, especially about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Kimmel’s team focused on people who seemed to be deliberately lying about what they knew; the segment was known as “Lie Witness News.”
Kimmel’s fans argued that the interviews proved how little the average voter thought about politics, and how easy it was to get people to perpetuate lies. His critics argued that he was taking cheap shots at ordinary people and helping to give liberal voters a sense of superiority over conservatives.
A number of journalists have argued that man on the street interviews (also known as “vox populi,” or “vox pop,”) are a thing of the past, and that they have outlived their usefulness. The journalist Elise Czajkowski has written about her own mixed experiences, both as a journalist and as an interview subject; she concluded that the man on the street interview tends to be overly simplistic:
“News needs people. Characters, narratives, and commentary are valuable elements of journalism. But by abolishing the man on the street interview, we force ourselves to dig deeper, to find a voice that represents a point of view rather than thrusting Jane Doe into the role of community spokesperson. Engagement means knowing that you have sources to call on deadline who will provide you with those characters. It means letting your audience bring their best to your community reporting. And it means trusting your audience enough to care that you’ve talked to the right person, not just a person.”
Czajkowski is not alone in this opinion. A survey of journalists found that the majority have a poor opinion of vox pop, or man on the street, interviews. Interestingly, the same study found that news organizations continue to require such interviews, undeterred by reporters’ views.