Sound Bites in Communication

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

man with fancy mustache blowing a smoke ring
Speechwriter Jeff Shesol likens the sound bite to a smoke ring: "a neat trick, maybe, but it's gone in an instant; it dissolves in the air" (quoted in The Enlightened Bracketologist, 2007). Sam Bassett/Getty Images

A sound bite is a brief excerpt from a text or performance (ranging from a single word to a sentence or two) that is meant to capture the interest and attention of an audience. A sound bite is also known as a grab or clip. Sound bites, often misspelled as sound bytes, are used frequently in politics and advertising.

"In recent presidential elections," said Craig Fehrman in 2012, "the average TV sound bite has dropped to a tick under eight seconds," (Fehrman 2011). In the 1960s, a 40-second sound bite was the norm.

Sound Bites Over Time

What defines a sound bite has changed through the years with the culture of communications. Consumers today want messages and information delivered to them more quickly than ever, and this is reflected in the media's use of sound grabs. Says Megan Foley: "From the late 1960s to the late 1980s, the place of oratory in U.S. public culture was shrinking—literally.

In 1968, the average sound bite in presidential election news coverage was more than 43 seconds long. In 1972, it dropped to 25 seconds. In 1976, it was 18 seconds; in 1980, 12 seconds; in 1984, just 10 seconds. By the time the 1988 election season rolled around, the size of the average sound bite had been reduced to less than 9 seconds. ... By the end of the 1980s, ... the time and space allotted to political oratory in the American mainstream media had already been incrementally eroded," (Foley 2012).

"I am even told that you like your reading in short bursts now. Little chunks. Sound bites. Like that. Because you are busy. In a rush. Like to graze. Like cows. A bite here. A bite there. Too much to do. No time to spare. Under pressure. Bollocks. Lazy. Stupid. Finger out. Socks up.
"It was not always thus. Time was when an Englishman could happily gawp at a single sentence for an hour at a time. The ideal magazine essay took roughly as long to read as it took your umbrella to dry."
(Michael Bywater, The Chronicles of Bargepole. Jonathan Cape, 1992)

The Use of Sound Bites in Politics

Many public speakers, politicians, and government officials are highly aware that the words they speak to audiences will be reproduced again and again. Prime Minister Tony Blair said the following of the Good Friday Agreement with this knowledge in mind: "A day like today is not a day for sound bites, really. But I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders," (Blair 1998).

Sound bites of presidents and presidential candidates are often under especially great scrutiny, their words dissected and pulled apart by virtually every news outlet. "Seeking to prod Congress to provide more money to help prevent layoffs from local and state governments, [President] Obama stressed how much better off private companies are doing in terms of hiring. “'The private sector is doing fine,' he said, immediately giving Mitt Romney the same kind of bumper-sticker sound bite that Mr. Obama used against Mr. McCain four years ago," (Shear 2012).

But politicians have some control over how their sound bites are used. Sound bites, for example, can be leveraged by presidential candidates to make themselves look better and their opponents worse during a campaign. Writer Jeremy Peters illustrates this. "Over images of factory employees hard at work and smiling families, an announcer says, 'When a million jobs were on the line, every Republican candidate turned their back, even said, 'Let Detroit go Bankrupt. ... Then the commercial pivots to the president. 'Not him,' says the announcer as a sound bite of the president plays. 'Don’t bet against the American auto industry,' Mr. Obama is shown saying," (Peters 2012).

Sound Bites as Compressed Arguments

High-quality speeches are successful in producing numerous high-quality sound bites that each make a strong point. Poor speeches, on the other hand, tend to produce low-quality sound bites. "As Peggy Noonan has explained so well, a sound bite is the culmination of good writing and a good argument. 'Ask not what your country can do... ' or 'The only thing we have to fear... ' represented the sharpest point of the speeches behind them.

So if Romney can deliver a single sentence then it will mean that beneath the pyramid’s capstone there is a solid block-by-block foundation," said John Dickerson of Mitt Romney's speaking, (Dickerson 2012).

Though sound bites should be strong and compelling when isolated, they shouldn't be used out of context too frequently, argues the authors of Broadcast Journalism: Techniques of Radio and Television News. "The sound-bite should encapsulate the main point of the argument; the strongest opinion or reaction. Again there is a danger of distortion by over-emphasizing the already emphatic and polarizing a point of view, and this danger can only be eliminated by carefully explaining the context in which the remarks were made," (Stewart, et al. 2008).

The Sound Bite Culture

"A sound bite society is one that is flooded with images and slogans, bits of information and abbreviated or symbolic messages--a culture of instant but shallow communication. It is not just a culture of gratification and consumption, but one of immediacy and superficiality, in which the very notion of 'news' erodes in a tide of formulaic mass entertainment.

It is a society anesthetized to violence, one that is cynical but uncritical, and indifferent to, if not contemptuous of, the more complex human tasks of cooperation, conceptualization, and serious discourse. ... "The sound bite culture ... focuses on the immediate and the obvious; the near-term, and the particular; on identity between appearance and reality; and on the self rather than larger communities. Above all, it is a society that thrives on simplicity and disdains complexity." (Jeffrey Scheuer, The Sound Bite Society: How Television Helps the Right and Hurts the Left. Routledge, 2001)

Television Journalism and Sound Bites

Good sound bites can be difficult to produce, in some cases requiring nearly as much thought to create as the speeches they are meant to summarize. Walter Goodman describes the pressure that television journalists feel to turn out meaningful clips of speech. "In any campaign reform, it must be acknowledged that television news is an accomplice as well as a victim of the politicos. The sound bite is to television what the fang bite was to Dracula. The office-seeker who has a thought that takes more than 30 seconds to express turns producers rabid," (Goodman 1990).

Media coverage on television revolves around speedy and succinct delivery and confident speakers—consumers don't want complicated. Because of this, TV sound bites are stripped as much as possible. "Television is the enemy of complexity," begins Howard Kurtz, author of Hot Air: All Talk, All the Time. "You rarely have time to express the fine points, the caveats, the context of your subject. You're always being interrupted just as you try to make a larger point. What works best on a talk show is the snappy one-liner, the artful insult, the definitive declaration. What makes you look weak and vacillating is an acknowledgment that your case is not airtight, that the other side may have a valid point," (Kurtz 1997).

Part of the danger in using sound bites for television journalism lies in not giving consumers the full story. For this reason, reporters should do their best to spread sound bites that encapsulate different sides of the same account, especially when it comes to politics. Damon Green expands on this in an interview by Mark Sweney. "If news reporters and cameras are only there to be used by politicians as recording devices for their scripted soundbites, at best that is a professional discourtesy. At worst, if we are not allowed to explore and examine a politician's views, then politicians cease to be accountable in the most obvious way," (Sweney 2011).

Sound-Bite Sabotage

Too often, sound bites are used to fulfill hostile agendas. Sound bite sabotage is such a prevalent problem that an entire book called Sound-Bite Saboteurs: Public Discourse, Education, and the State of Democratic Deliberation, an excerpt of which is featured below, has been written about it.

"Sound-bite saboteurs on all sides of the aisle try to move the opinion of publics toward positions that are contrary to the best available data. Rather than communicating with publics to enable more informed decision making, sound-bite sabotage occurs when public and private leaders use the tools of public relations to discredit the importance of using data, engaging in scholarly inquiry, and supporting democratic deliberation.

Seeing (hearing, reading, experiencing) sound-bite sabotage draws our attention to the commodification of political discourse rather than to the political spectacles constructed, to distract citizens from the communicative strategies mobilized by public and private elites," (Drew, et al. 2010).

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