Why we should step away from sound-bite journalism

Author: Odoobo C. Bichachi is the Nation Media Group (NMG)-Uganda public editor. PHOTO/FILE.

What you need to know:

If you are a reporter or editor, let that interesting sound-bite not be your end of story, it should only prompt you to seek other voices to confirm or debunk the said sound-bite.

If you are a television or radio journalist, you definitely know what a sound-bite is. If you are a newspaper or online journalist, you likely know what it looks (sounds?) like even though you may sometimes not recognize it. How about if you are television news, radio news or newspaper consumer? You certainly have “seen” or heard it, even though you may not pick it out.

So what is it anyway? Well, “a good sound clip that can be made part of a report is referred to as a sound-bite in TV journalism and it is interesting to journalists if the statement in question is short and memorable and can be easily used when editing.”

Some of the most memorable sound-bites in Uganda’s news have come from the indomitable Kahinda Otafiire, currently minister of Internal Affairs, with perhaps the most enduring being “…leave issues of generals to generals” in response to then presidential adviser Tamale Mirundi.

He also famously said of the demolition of then Kampala LC-3 chairman Godfrey Nyakana’s house in Bugolobi thus: “You very well know that the only animals that have got the license to live in wetlands are frogs, fish and crocodiles. Nyakana is neither a fish nor a crocodile. What was he doing there to complain that Otafiire has demolished his building? What was his house doing in the wetland? Is Nyakana a frog?”

Now we all know what a sound-bite is. Increasingly, media scholars and analysts have been noticing a growing not-so-new style of journalism that has come to be known as “sound-bite journalism”. Daniel Chandler and Rod Munday in “A Dictionary of Media and Communication”, have defined it as “the technique of reporting highly editorialised versions of news or current affairs stories that are presented as simplified summaries.”

While sound-bites have always been the “kola-nuts with which palm-wine is taken” – to use a famous Igbo saying – giving voice, clarity and credibility to the new stories, the increasing pressure on journalists to grab attention of audiences or sell stories is turning the kola-nut into the palm-wine, or the sound-bite into the story. The danger when this happens is that the news cease to inform and instead it misinforms, misrepresents or distorts. It becomes manufactured news!

Sound-bite journalism used to be typical of television and radio news but it is now out of the airwaves and is discernible in print and online platforms as well. In Uganda, if you have been following media coverage of the death of Speaker Jacob Oulanyah in the past week or so, then you have seen a lot of sound-bite journalism manifesting as news and tending to overshadow real news.

Should we – journalists and media consumers – be worried about this growing phenomenon in Uganda’s media space?

Eike Mark Rinke in the essay, “The Impact of Sound-Bite Journalism on Public Argument” and Tena Perišin in the essay, “When Sound-bites Become the News: A Case Stud y on Manufacturing News in Croatia” have quite illuminating thoughts on this subject.

Rinke says one consequence of sound-bite journalism is “the creation of incomplete arguments [and] …shrinking sound-bites consistently reduce the probability of opinion justification across widely differing national contexts. Sound-bite journalism emerges as harmful to television news’ ability to produce public justification”.

Perišin on the other hand says “when the news story is built on a sound-bite taken out of the context, it is obvious that the real content could be hidden or misunderstood.” He adds: “…sound-bite [journalism] clearly shows that the notion of fragmentation and dramatisation work together and that the whole series of news stories and analyses can be constructed, just starting from a ‘well-chosen’ sound-bite’. It is a clear example of misuse of sound-bites. It shows how choosing a fragment, not a context, can lead to misinterpretation and manipulation instead of information.”

If you are a reporter or editor, let that interesting sound-bite not be your end of story, it should only prompt you to seek other voices to confirm or debunk the said sound-bite.

Typically, sound-bite journalism manifests with tabloid journalism and conflict journalism and when it gets entrenched in a given media space, it makes it impossible for readers, viewers or listeners “to make the distinction between breaking news and hard news; between hard news and pseudo-news or between facts and fabrications.”

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