IS IT THE NEED for a commercial break for TV news or the shrinking attention span of the bloggers and their followers in the gadget culture that makes the “shortened story” inevitable? Convoluted answers from news subjects to a question thrown at them in an interview need to be edited into sound bites or short video clips. The pauses, whether dramatic or simply a case of a loss for words, need to be cut out.
The quick summary, sometimes excerpted from the diarrhea of words arising from a constipation of thought (please wipe after every discharge), is intended to disguise a rambling response. The summary junks context and irons out the complexity of the subject matter. This is not an academic lecture, after all, even if academics from a certain university dominate the cabinet and advisory councils.
Even more challenging in terms of abbreviated reporting is the photo op. Here, there is a staged meeting of the cabinet, sometimes with the quarantined leader appearing like Orwell’s “Big Brother” on a TV screen before a table squeezing in cabinet members who seem to be reverently paying attention. Are marching orders being issued? The coverage plays safe by stating the obvious — the working-from-home chief is conducting a meeting. The topic is not even mentioned, just the sense that the chief can’t wait to get back to the office and figure things out.
The one-on-one interview, either of a corporate CEO or a political leader, allows for a more extended elucidation of issues, especially when the interviewer allows the interviewee to finish his sentences, without interruption. This more relaxed conversation, sometimes in the boardroom of the interviewee’s office, can feature a host that has done her research and studiously keeping biases in check. Even in this setting, the interviewee must be mindful that excerpts may be recycled into the news and an unintended sound bite extracted from scripted answers.
Even business subjects can shrink from the characterization of the hour-long interview squeezed into a five-minute segment — traces of poison in our noodles are insignificant and equivalent to two mosquito bites. (I was misquoted.)
News subjects are cautioned by their PR mentors to keep their guard up with media. Any words that are uttered by the interviewee are fair game, even when the cameras are not rolling, and people are just milling around having donuts and coffee. PR advisers familiar with the penchant of media for sound bites are ready to provide their own. This feed ensures that it is the intended slant that prevails.
Casual comments must be reined in — I gave to all the candidates, but not the same amount. Even if this is mentioned while the crew is packing away, it might end up as the sound bite for the interview.
Media, both traditional and social, have turned interviews into a search for the shortened story. The journalist follows the dictum — when eating an elephant, take it one bite at a time. The pachyderm metaphor refers to the heavyweight status of a subject, and the little snatches of sound that must be applied.
The choice of excerpts to highlight is left to the ones covering the event. History itself has picked sound bites to characterize its heroes and villains. Wasn’t Marie Antoinette forever associated with her haughty attitude towards the poor — let them eat cake? And wasn’t this royal cluelessness seen as the match that ignited the French Revolution. Never mind if she didn’t really say it.
The rising importance of influencers and bloggers in the media space makes the shortened story even more pervasive. Sometimes, trolls and their farm managers are issued talking points (or attack messages) to let loose on a designated target.
The sound bite cannot be stopped by a sincere denial or the laying out of a long narrative of excuses and misunderstandings. Shortened stories can only be doused by even shorter responses. In fact, words can be dispensed with.
To dismiss the allegations of a feud, can a photographed fist bump between two heads of state work? This has been tried at the highest global level, but the oil production of that party did not really rise to plug the leak of the economic sanctions on Russia.
There’s always a longer story to explain what really happened. But who cares to listen to that?
Tony Samson is chairman and CEO of TOUCH xda