Service of Sound Bites

September 26th, 2011

Categories: Communications, Education, News, Radio, Sound Bite


A radio newscaster reporting on the hour from a reputable network Saturday morning explained the stock market dip last week as having been caused by Europe’s shaky economy and banking industry, then dashed off to another subject.

Am I Rip Van Winkle? What about grievous problems in the US on both the job and real estate fronts with solutions batted back and forth by politicians whose eyes are no longer on the ball but frozen in simplistic party slogans or directed toward their own reelections?

How many more seconds would it have taken to say, “….on top of stagnant job stats and decreasing real estate industry sales here at home.” [It’s always easier and more palatable to blame someone else, but that’s not the point.]

Television and radio news helped hone the sound bite syndrome that’s been cut in half by Twitter, Facebook and texting. Concurrently we’ve watched the national attention span reach the depth of a photo caption or length of a one-column headline. Under such constraints, accuracy is especially important. Increasingly, people believe what they hear and rarely question.

irs1The “make it simple and be quick about it” trend may be the feather that sinks our shaky ship. Millions accept positions such as “Tax the rich and jobs are doomed,” without thinking through the ramifications. Wouldn’t it be grand if true? Leave things as-is and life will be back to dandy while we face zero pain to get there?  Tax wise nothing’s changed of late and we’re still in an economic mess with no new jobs. Proof enough?  

The scariest part is that all a person-any person–with a microphone, computer or pulpit has to do is repeat a slogan often enough and it becomes fact.

Past nodding “That makes sense,” the “don’t tax the very rich” proponents haven’t dug deeper. Do they question the motives of most of those who chant the phrase? My bet is that the loudest voices don’t want to pay $1,000 more of their $ half million a year income. Let some dummy who can’t afford a canny accountant pay!

Isn’t another missing part of today’s education learning to question what you read and hear? Is that because there’s no time for either teaching or doing that?  Are my observations as simplistic and inaccurate as my criticisms of our sound bite mentality and shallow thinking process?


9 Responses to “Service of Sound Bites”

  1. Anonymous Said:

    Jeanne: I first learned of the stock market dip from a headline on the internet that said that the stock market had fallen TO 400 points. This was from a very reputable company. After I picked my jaw up off of the floor I realized that that could not be. I work near enough to Wall Street where I would have heard anguished cries had that been the case and I couldn’t imagine what would cause such a huge drop in such a short time.

    As far as your desciption of blame goes, I remember the huge power outage we had in 2003 along the Eastern seaboard. There was plenty of finger-pointing going on with that one–mostly us blaming Canada.

    I think the problem is that there is pressure within the media to be the “first” and accuracy is suffering. Add to that the factors you have mentioned, and the surprise is that anyone gets the stories right.

  2. jeanne byington Said:

    Great point anonymous!
    Saturday’s newscaster had more than two seconds to write her analysis/newscast, unlike the person who wrote about the stock market slide TO 400. Yikes. May that not happen. Amazing that there were no heart side effects from other readers of the 400 number.

    No doubt the fact checker/copy editor/editor of what you read was fired. The publisher’s reaction? No doubt,”No biggie, not worth the money to be accurate.”

  3. KF Said:

    I agree about sound bites, especially on the half-hour evening news programs. One remedy is to listen to BBC news or the French news where one gets a different slant on our news and news we never hear.

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Good idea.

    And now for a slanted reaction based on zero fact: I fear that the people who would listen to one or more foreign news services for a different slant and to learn a few new facts are not the ones who hear a simple sound bite and register “fact!”

  5. Simon Carr Said:

    The American general in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, who said, “Nuts,” when asked to surrender, communicated his sentiments amply with one word – as short a sound bite as I’ve come across.

    Obviously, in that situation a sound bite was all that was needed and was far more effective than a speech to boot! However, in most situations, sound bites are ineffective or inadequate. It takes a trained communicator to know when and how to use or not use them. The trouble is that today’s communicators mostly have neither the training nor skill and certainly not, in most cases, the freedom to say what they like.

    Bob Schieffer of CBS, who celebrated his 40th year with “Face the Nation” last Sunday is, as far as I know, the only one left that still has that skill and freedom.

    Meanwhile, the best we can do is cling to that wise old adage, “Don’t believe what you hear.”

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    If you are home for the nightly news, take a look at Peter Jennings. I think he’s great. [And he has a fabulous sense of humor.] George Stephanopoulos is good. And there are others. Some panelists on news shows are pretty spectacular–George Will of The Washington Post for example.

    How soon we forget the old adage you reminded us about–“Don’t believe what you hear.” Why didn’t I think of that? It says it all.

  7. Lucrezia Said:

    Schools are not in the business of teaching one how to think, and unless one is blessed by a broadminded teacher/professor, there will always be attempts to force the student to live within prescribed intellectual restrictions. I like experiments, and thought it was interesting to take up controversial arguments to see where they lead, and was rewarded with many a rotten grade for the effort. This was the story then, and, with historys unfortunate tendency to repeat itself, continues now.

    Example: In an art class, I kept getting a D on every test regardless of the fact I was proficient in said subject, but was helping classmates understand what they were looking at, who painted it, and possibly why. So now, I tried an experiment, and on the very next test, I quoted the prof to the letter on each and every question, and volia, an A+! This would be highly amusing if parents were not paying a fortune to send their little geniuses to a good school, and if such minimal thinking was restricted to art classes.

    Anyone wanting a graphic example of how this works should try to view the film, “Jesus Camp.” Fortunately, most schools don’t go to such extremes, but the viewer gets an alarming glimpse of what is being foisted on our youth in certain parts of the country, and in smaller, but damaging doses elsewhere. Should you get to see the film: Happy Nightmare!

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:


    To the extent that people are taught to take multiple choice tests where there is only one correct answer, no discussion, you are right. I never got the swing of these but hear that there is a way to trick such tests…missing the point of learning but….

    I had the opposite happen to me. I spouted the stuff I’d heard all semester in the exam but the professor didn’t correct the thing…he paid a grad student [who didn’t agree with him] to do it. This was the only time in my life that I complained about my grade. The professor shrugged. Life isn’t fair.

    I remember lively discussions in class. Some schools have debates. Learning to question is part of all of that.

    Even though their products produce sound bites, the brains behind Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and all the smarthphone applications know how to think. Trouble is: There aren’t enough of them.

  9. DManzaluni Said:

    All you are really saying is that the intellectual capacity of the newscaster (or whoever makes up whatever he or she says) isn’t up to snuff. And he or she has to reduce everything to 16 second sound bytes which capture what their minds assess of the situation admirably (i.e. not at all)

    Which is a bit unexceptionable. They are dimwits, what do you expect? They probably do very well on Twitter where if you have nothing to say for yourself, you can do it in 140 characters.

    I agree that if you want news analysis, “One remedy is to listen to BBC news or the French news (or DW) where one gets a different slant on our news and news we never hear.”

    That said, what is wrong with Shields & Brooks?

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