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History of the Sound Bite

by Austin Brown on January 6th, 02011

The Boston Globe took a look recently at the ever-shrinking sound bite.  Digging into the history of the practice, the article argues that the trend towards shorter clips of political speech isn’t just older than you’d think – pre-dating television and even radio – but that it’s not necessarily an indicator of a shallower political discourse.

According to a new article in the academic journal Journalism Studies by David M. Ryfe and Markus Kemmelmeier, both professors at the University of Nevada, newspaper quotations evolved in much the same way as TV sound bites. 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.

According to Daniel Hallin, during the 20 years between the elections of ‘68 and ‘88 the average sound bite dropped from forty-three seconds to nine, all well before Twitter!  The reason for this isn’t a sudden loss of IQ in the media and public discourse, but rather a trend away from publishing lengthy, verbatim excerpts of speeches in preference for analysis and contextualizing of the candidates’ claims:

Meanwhile, reporters, influenced by Vietnam and Watergate, were becoming more skeptical and more cynical. It all added up to a more active journalism — which meant, on TV, a journalism that was more interested in exposing and analyzing political image-making than in passively transmitting those images.

Say what you want about what replaced the footage of politicians, but chances are you wouldn’t want to let them go on as long as they’d like.

(via Kottke)