A sound bite is a portion of recorded human speech that is presented as part of a broadcast news report. Referred to by a variety of names, including actuality, sound clip, and sound-on-tape, the sound bite is characteristically the distillation of a person’s message, usually in one or two well-turned phrases or sentences. The overwhelming body of research on sound bites has focused on their brevity and subsequent effect on political discourse. Modest attempts are being made to expand the research agenda on sound bites to include issues of journalistic mediation and effects on learning information.
Most of the research on sound bites has examined their characteristics and use in television news reports of US national election campaigns. Content analyses (Hallin 1992; Lowry & Shidler 1998) have produced a consistent description: while the average sound bite in national campaigns was nearly 43 seconds in 1968, by 1988 the length had shrunk to under 10 seconds. As a comparison, a similar content analysis in Germany showed that candidates’ sound bites on German television news average around 20 seconds (Donsbach & Jandura 2003). Broadcast practitioners took note of the findings, leading some networks to announce policies in 1992 for longer sound bites. Nevertheless, average sound bites have remained under 10 seconds. The brevity of sound bites has in turn affected political discourse. Political consultants have steered candidates into speech behaviors that are suited to sound bites; i.e., main ideas expressed in concise or simple terms and compelling enough to make it past journalistic gatekeepers. Through a change in behavior to suit broadcast news, all political speech has been affected, whether that speech is broadcast or not.
This research has been met with normative concerns that political speech is stripped of complexity and nuance, feeding voters simple solutions to complicated problems (Slayden & Whillock 1999). Hence, sound bites weaken democratic or republican governance by diluting discourse among voters and between voters and representatives. Some fear that sound bites, at their worst, are a means of creating false consciousness among the electorate, thereby aiding in manufacturing public consent. Others have argued that such fears are unfounded and rooted in deterministic assumptions. While news stories rely on sound bites, candidates also have access to more long-form interview programs than in the past. In the end, broadcast journalists are doing what print journalists have done for decades: crafting news for clarity and conciseness.
The shrinking sound bite has become symbolic of the increasingly active, mediating role of broadcast journalists. As studies have shown, the shorter a candidate’s sound bite, the longer the reporter’s narration. Research has documented that even though the number of sound bites in a news report has increased and reports have gotten shorter, the percentage of time devoted to journalists’ narration has increased (Steele & Barnhurst 1996). This marks a change in political reporting from a relatively passive role to a more mediated form of news. News reports in the US in the 1960s typically relied on lengthy sound bites to carry the narrative thread of the story. By the 1980s, reporters’ narration created the narrative unity of the news story. This increase in editorial control increases journalists’ power in the delivery of political communication.
The concern for some is that this more mediated approach to news leads to a narrative line stressing the campaign as a horse race rather than stressing a candidate’s policy platform. Increased mediation also opens up the possibility for more bias on the part of reporters or news organizations. In fact, some have argued that the shrinking sound bite has created a structural bias in favor of conservative policies. However, US studies of sound bite bias have detected a modest tilting toward Democratic candidates (Lowry & Shidler 1998), and have found that sound bites were slightly longer for Democrats than Republicans. Nevertheless, the length of sound bites did not prove to be related to how favorably a candidate was viewed by voters (Russomanno & Everett 1995).
Whether sound bites alter political discourse or contribute to bias, these effects are generally understood as unintended consequences. The shrinking sound bite and greater editorial control by broadcast journalists are typically explained in economic terms (Hallin 1992). The tightly edited pace of stories with short sound bites is believed to be preferred by audiences. News consultants have sold shorter sound bites to broadcasters as a means of maximizing ratings, which in turn maximizes profits. Other explanations have noted the technological development of broadcasting, which allowed for easier editing to create more complex or mediated news reports. Still other explanations have noted the broader shift in journalism, particularly following Watergate in the US, from a disseminating to an interpretive role. The interpretive role is consistent with the more mediated style, which uses shorter sound bites and more reporter narration.
A new area of research on sound bites has explored how audience members learn from news that is driven by sound bites. Some evidence suggests that viewers learn more information from a montage of sound bites and images than they do strictly from reporters’ narration.
- Donsbach, W., & Jandura, O. (2003). Chances and effects of authenticity: Candidates of the German federal election in TV news. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 8(1), 49–65.
- Hallin, D. C. (1992). Sound bite news: Television coverage of elections, 1968–1988. Journal of Communication, 42(2), 5–24.
- Lowry, D. T., & Shidler, J. A. (1998). The sound bites, the biters, and the bitten: A two-campaign test of the anti-incumbent bias hypothesis in network TV news. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 75(4), 719–729.
- Russomanno, J. A., & Everett, S. E. (1995). Candidate sound bites: Too much concern over length? Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 39(3), 408–415.
- Slayden, D., & Whillock, R. K. (1999). Soundbite culture: The death of discourse in a wired world. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Steele, C. A., & Barnhurst, K. G. (1996). The journalism of opinion: Network news coverage of U.S. presidential campaigns, 1968–1988. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 13, 187– 209.