In Defense of Soundbites

[Boston Globe]

In today’s Boston Globe, I’ve got an essay on soundbites, the media, and political coverage. Ever since 1992, when Daniel Hallin documented that the length of the average TV soundbite fell from 43 seconds in 1968 to 9 seconds in 1988, people have worried about the shrinking soundbite and what it all means. In the early 1990s, critics blamed this trend on the “Age of MTV.” Today, of course, it’s the Age of the Internet. But as I try to show in my essay, soundbites have dropped in length for a variety of reasons — economic, political, historical, and professional. What’s more, they’ve been dropping for a long time, as new research suggests that newspaper quotations began shrinking in a similar way in the 1890s.

Instead of soundbites, then, we should worry about the tone and focus of our political discourse. And there’s no doubt that this, too, has evolved. In 1968, for example, Spiro Agnew said at a press conference that “Mr. Nixon is trying to cast himself in the role of a Neville Chamberlain.” Agnew meant to say that Hubert Humphrey had done this and quickly corrected himself. As Hallin noted, though, Agnew’s gaffe aired uncorrected and in the middle of a long soundbite on how the Democratic ticket had gone “squishy soft” on Communism and crime. Nobody blanched at his slip because something like it didn’t — and doesn’t — matter.

(One other note: the same year Hallin published his research, a Harvard sociologist named Kiku Addato published a research paper that corroborated Hallin’s findings. I didn’t mention her because it seems Hallin got there first — he told me he noticed the shrinking soundbite while researching his book on the media and Vietnam — and because her analysis lacked his complexity. You can read a .pdf of Addato’s paper here.)


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