Anyone who buys the beltway complaint that television news reporting shrivels both politics and public discourse has two new reasons to worry: sound bites are getting shorter and video reels are getting longer. That means less talk of policy solutions and more rolling shots of diplomatic handshakes, tarmac striding, and presidential cowboys whacking underbrush on Texas ranches. In the Journal of Communication’s winter issue, Indiana University professors Erik Bucy and Maria Grabe update a landmark 1992 study, which found that clips of presidential candidates speaking between 1968 and 1992 had dramatically shrunk from an average of one minute to under ten seconds each. Since 1992, say Bucy and Grabe, sound bites have been further compressed into eight-second nibbles. Meanwhile, B-roll of candidates has expanded, and image bites (no words from the candidates) now take up more airtime than sound bites in campaign coverage.

But do the details of the findings offer any hope? Are sound bites, though shorter, more numerous? Nope. Denser with policy content? Afraid not. Shrinking in proportion to the length of news stories? On the contrary. Since 1992, the number of sound bites has hovered at a bit over two per story. Only a third of sound bites address substantive issues or breaking news; and in the average two-minute campaign story, candidates speak for less than twenty seconds.

There is some good news, however—in pictures, not words; “image bites” rather than sound bites. Sampling ABC, NBC, and CBS campaign coverage from 1992 to 2004, Bucy and Grabe find that close-ups and action shots of candidates, such as Bill Clinton playing the sax or John Kerry windsurfing, “convey important cues about status, viability, and physical and mental fitness for office.” “Because pictures are perceived as firsthand knowledge,” they say, “…visuals are undoubtedly delivering more information to viewers than previously acknowledged.” In other words, B-roll isn’t all bad: candidates can speak volumes without ever saying a word.

It’s a familiar claim that fits the image-trumps-all mythology that pervades our culture. One common argument for television’s visual power is that the graphic portrayal of the Vietnam War turned Americans vehemently against U.S. involvement. But as Daniel Hallin shows in The “Uncensored War,” television brought very little combat footage into American living rooms when opposition to the war began to grow. Similarly, Ronald Reagan’s popularity, widely attributed to his Hollywood-honed ability to perform for the camera, is often cited as evidence of television news’s bias toward aura over argument. But Reagan’s first-year poll numbers showed the lowest public-approval ratings in polling history for a new president—suggesting that images aren’t as decisive as legend would have it.

What seems to matter more is not what candidates say about themselves, or what they are seen doing, but the depth of reporting and commentary that journalists add to those sound and image bites. Bucy and Grabe find that journalists are increasingly brokers of meaning in political coverage—appearing twice as much as candidates, filling more than half of each news segment with context and commentary. And their interpretations, or lack of them, matter.

Take the recent flap over the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and his connection to the Obama campaign. Instead of providing a complex portrait of Wright, rooting him and his offensive sound bites in the complexity of the African American experience (to say nothing of the human experience), the press—led by cable news’s endless looping of Wright’s inflammatory image bites—effectively dismissed him as an extremist. It took Obama himself to add the necessary nuance and shades of gray to Wright’s story, using it to broaden the national discourse on race. Talk about embarrassment.

We grant Bucy and Grabe their argument that scholars of TV news should analyze the pictures, not just the words. We agree, in this election season, that “image bites” clearly matter. But we question how much. A picture may be worth a thousand words—but those thousand words, properly deployed, can make the picture worth a whole lot more. 

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Michael Schudson & Danielle Haas write The Research Report for CJR. Schudson teaches at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and in the Department of Communication, University of California, San Diego. Haas is a Ph.D. candidate in Communications at Columbia.