Soundbites Can Be Good!

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Media coverage of elections has changed drastically over the years, as politicians' words have slowly shrunk from multiple-paragraph newspaper quotes to minute-long uninterrupted recordings to nine-second sound bites. Though the diminished broadcast of candidates' ramblings has become the bane of every eager politician's existence, The Boston Globe's Craig Fehrman discovers that when it comes to soundbites, sometimes less is more.

Research into the history of American journalism shows that "newspaper quotations evolved in much the same way as TV sound bites," Fehrman learns from research by two University of Nevada professors. "By 1916, they found, the average political quotation in a newspaper story had fallen to about half the length of the average quotation in 1892." But this doesn't necessarily mean that we, as media consumers, are getting dumber. Shrinking quotes and soundbites are by-products of the evolution of journalists' jobs. Journalists started, he argues, as vessels through which politicians and government officials relayed messages and have progressed to the more active positions of investigators and reporters. More context and analysis in news stories means reducing politician's words "down to a more manageable size." While this means shorter quotes, it also forces journalists to listen more carefully and pick the most significant words. But, Fehrman asks:

Have these changes been a bad thing? There are plenty of reasons to distrust sound bites and the kind of journalism that produces them. First, and most obviously, we miss out on the variety and authenticity of hearing people speak at length, and in their own words. Short snippets seem to encourage coverage that focuses on candidates’ gaffes and catch phrases. Sometimes, it feels like we get more of the journalists than of the politicians.
If you’re worried about our political conversation, then, sound bites may be more a symptom than a cause. And they do come with benefits. Hallin has argued all along that television news in the 1960s and 1970s, which many take to be the genre’s golden age, was never actually that good. Stories were dull and disorganized; those long quotations would be followed by a couple of seconds of dead air. Early newspapers, in their time, were no different.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.