Quotations from politicians have been getting shorter for more than a century. 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.
One way to interpret this, of course, is that we’ve been getting dumber since 1892 instead of since 1968. But Ryfe and Kemmelmeier also suggest that the truth is more complicated. The sound bite, they argue, stems less from a collapse in standards or seriousness than from the rise of a more sophisticated and independent style of journalism — which means the sound bite might not be such a bad thing. Letting politicians ramble doesn’t necessarily produce a better or more informative political discourse. Daniel Hallin, the professor behind the original study on TV sound bites, actually made the same point back in 1992, but Dukakis and his fellow critics passed right by it in their excitement over those ugly statistics. And that’s one of the ironies here: The best research on sound bites was itself turned into a sound bite.