Death to the Sound Bite: Context Is Everything (The News - Part 1)

This post is Part 1 of a multi-part series I've been wanting to write for quite a while now. The purpose of this series is to highlight the need to carefully consider how we consume and think about the information we're exposed to every day, with particular emphasis on the news. This information affects how we live our lives (often in unconscious ways) and therefore merits some exploration if we're truly to live life on our terms.

Unfortunately, active listening is in short supply in our world of headlines and seven-second sound bytes. That's why I’m a strong advocate for reducing our consumption of social media, nightly news and sitcoms in favour of information sources that can offer more complete stories, the most effective of which are non-fiction books, thought-provoking articles and documentaries. And yes, some blogs.

The American public is so inured to slickness, that, at the least, you have got to come up to the level of slickness expected on TV before your message comes through.
— Statement from a TV Director, The Hidden Persuaders (1957, 1980) by Vance Packard, p. 184

Only when ideas are fully expressed and explored can they be understood. And, to our detriment, we just don’t seem to have the appetite to wade through the full explanation of important concepts that affect our daily lives and our potential for a promising future. Unfortunately, this lack of appetite carries with it some unintended consequences that can affect our relationships, our finances, our careers, our freedom and liberties, and ultimately, our happiness.

Unintended Consequences

Sound bites change the way we think about and understand the world. They transform us in a number of ways. They make us:

  1. Impatient
  2. Ignorant
  3. Forget nuance
  4. Adversarial/Intolerant
  5. Dismissive

1. Impatience

Time works against understanding, coherence, and even meaning.
— Neil Postman and Steve Powers How To Watch TV News (2008), p. 50.

We’re an impatient bunch in general, thanks in part to an accelerated pace of life brought about by living in “Internet time”. And with impatience comes the inability to take a deep dive into a topic. 

At the very moment when our societies have reached a stage of unparalleled complexity, we have impatiently come to expect all substantial issues to be capable of drastic compression.
— Alain de Botton, The News: A User's Manual (2014), p. 30.

We want the “bottom line” statement of an argument instead of figuring it out ourselves by considering the facts and opinions presented. The norm is to go shallow and wide on the information we consume and only to go narrow and deep when it’s germane to our chosen field (and sometimes even then we prefer to stay in the shallows). And the world of news, social media, business and government are all too happy to oblige. Shoot, we don’t even have time for company names and mottos anymore. They’ve been replaced with symbols and accronyms!

2. Ignorance

We know of many things...but about very little.
— Neil Postman & Steve Powers, How to Watch TV News (2008), p. 151.
The less information, the more significant it is.
— Neil Postman & Steve Powers, How to Watch TV News (2008), p. 148.
There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies.
— Walter Lippman

Sound bites are effective. No doubt about it. It’s a great way to get a message across, which is why it used to be used as a way to summarize an argument or position, not as a standalone statement. Sound bites can also come across as fact and be quite convincing when there’s no opportunity provided to take a deeper dive into the meaning of it and when it taps into strong emotions. That’s how the U.S. Republicans ended up with their Presidential Nominee!

The modern idiot could routinely know what only geniuses had known in the past, and yet he was still an idiot—a depressing combination of traits that previous ages had never had to worry about.
— Alain de Botton, The News: A User's Manual (2014), p. 70.

Without the context behind the sound bites, no one in their right mind can consider themselves informed, which means we are all, for the most part, ignorant on most issues. This is not meant as an insult, but as a reasonable assessment of our understanding of the world we live in. We’re surrounded by propaganda and our first line of defense is awareness of the impact of messaging on our thinking, on how we perceive the world around us.

3. The Loss of Nuance

Disappear the context, or fragment it, and contradiction disappears.
— Neil Postman & Steve Powers, How to Watch TV News (2008), p. 109.

Sound bites make us forget that very little in this world is binary. Most issues are messy and can’t be reduced as purely black and white. Welcome to the human condition. That said, we’re much happier to rely on the sound bite as a passive way to take a position on an issue, given that delving into a topic is more likely to have us change our minds from “for” or "against" to “it depends”. In a way, the more we know about a topic, the more we can feel we still have a lot to learn.

4. Adversarial/Intolerant

[A] little knowledge of the wrong kind has managed to narrow rather than expand the compass of our curiosity.
— Alain de Botton, The News: A User's Manual (2014), p. 91.

Without context, it’s easy to take an “us” versus “them” view of the world. For the most part, all of us as individuals have much more in common with each other than a sound bite or two can convey. We need to discuss opposite points of view to fully understand and appreciate them and to uncover the reasons behind the behaviours and attitudes. Often, what we want as people is to be heard and understood and sound bites do the opposite. We dig our heels and repetedly shout our position at the other side, ensuring all the energy we expend does nothing to resolve a situation and indeed can serve to escalate it.

I dare anyone to tell me that when we make the effort to learn more about a person with differing views—where they’re coming from and what they care about—we don’t start to feel some sort of affiliation toward them, regardless of whether or not our position has changed. Understanding each other always softens the divide. Sound bites reinforce it.  

5. Dismissive

It was found that people’s memories were ‘significantly better’ in recalling material that harmonized with their own political viewpoint or ‘frame of reference’. There was a clear tendency for them to forget the material that didn’t harmonize with their own preconceived notions.
— Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders (1957, 1980), p. 174.

If all we hear is a one-liner on a topic, we’re apt to either ignore the messaging or to inflate its significance. Indeed, we tend to remember the sound bites that are aligned with our beliefs and to dismiss/forget the ones that are not. We process them this way because we’re bombarded with them hundreds of times a day. These short messages make it seem there’s nothing to talk about, that an issue is not real or significant, or that there are too many to absorb, so why bother.

[T]he average citizen now has near-instantaneous access to information about events in every nation on earth. But we’ve also been forced to learn something rather more surprising: no one is particularly interested.
— Alain de Botton, The News: A User's Manual (2014), p. 80.

Sound bites also give equal footing to various types of information, offering little to no sense of scale or scope of an issue over another. The potential ramifications of a situation, decision or eventuality often don’t come across, making it easier to ignore than to seek out the details in order to decide whether or not to act.

The Solution?

[W]hen we learn to recognize the devices of the persuaders, we build up a ‘recognition reflex.’ Such a recognition reflex, [Clyde Miller said], ‘can protect us against the petty trickery of small-time persuaders operating in the common-place affairs of everyday life, but also against the mistaken of false persuasion of powerful leaders...
— Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders (1957, 1980), p. 239.

One way to reduce the potential effects sound bites can have on us is to internalize how they're used to manipulate our thinking into adopting an overly-simplistic view of our society and of the world overall. When we know that a sound bite is just that, a bite of information, we can use the awareness it offer to seek out the context needed to determine whether it's a reasonable reflection of the underlying information or to dismiss it entirely. 

Self-reliance is the antidote to institutional stupidity.
— Gatto
What is happening here is that television is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation... Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information—misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information—information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing.
— Neil Postman & Steve Powers, How to Watch TV News (2008), p. 107.

Of course, we can’t dive into the background supporting every single sound bite, but the more often we dive, the more we realize how misleading and/or incomplete they are. We can reduce their manipulative power to one of only peaking our interest to know more instead of allowing them to stand on their own as "the truth".

[A]nyone who is not an avid reader of newspapers, magazines, and books is by definition unprepared to watch television news shows, and will always be.

[Political/social/cultural/ideological implications] are complex matters that are beyond the scope of simple television newscasts and must be learned through extensive reading of newspapers and books.
— Neil Postman & Steve Powers, How to Watch TV News (2008), p. x-xi.

We can also consciously choose not to parrot a one-liner that we haven't yet evaluated because doing so would be a disservice to others. Passing on information we haven't yet vetted for ourselves might make us feel informed in the moment and help us look good to others, but it may perpetuate disinformation. At the very least, we can couch the sound bite by saying that we don't know enough to comment on its validity.

Since there are so many alternative ways of describing what happened, the viewer must be on guard against assuming that he or she has heard ‘the absolute truth’.
— Neil Postman & Steve Powers, How to Watch TV News (2008), p. 102.
Learn something about the economic and political interests of those who [provide the information].
— Neil Postman & Steve Powers, How to Watch TV News (2008), p. 154-160.

When we choose to take a deeper dive, sources that tend to offer a range of perspective that can help us make up our own minds are non-fiction books, documentaries, in-depth news articles and the like. Though most of these are not always completely balanced, we can read more than one source. The truth is usually somewhere in the middle, as each writer/speaker has a vested interest in presenting information a certain way.

I’ll add one more source to the mix: John Oliver’s weekly deep dive into a subject. His is one of the first shows on television that I’ve seen take an honest “did you know” take on a variety of topics from government to finance to health to divissive social issues. What a great idea to explore the boring, the controversial and the nuanced through humour! Humour makes it possible to explore the taboo aspects of a given subject that most other news organizations wouldn't dare cover or address and that's information worth listening to. It's the context we're often starved of. 

Here’s his team's latest exposé, this time on the debt collection industry:

Hopefully, by taking responsibility for making up our own minds on the issues that matter most to how we live our lives, we can—more often than not—make better choices for ourselves and for others affected.

But don't just take my word for it... ;).

What do you think of sound bites? How do you manage to form an opinion on the important topics that affect you most?

Image credit/copyright: hywards/

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