Will You Sound Bite This?

Being married to a national journalist has its advantages. For example, when I’m feeling completely uninformed or confused about national or international events, I have a readily available source to answer my questions.

There are also disadvantages. The news never takes a vacation, so my husband works weekends and odd hours. He can’t express any public opinions about politics (really, he’s not allowed), and even though he and his co-workers are held to very high standards, when people criticize the media as an industry, they are also criticizing his professional integrity.

Regardless, I credit broadcast journalism for giving me a great life. It’s how I met my husband, it pays the bills and it’s how I started my career.

And while my career in broadcast journalism was extremely short-lived, the lessons it taught me have served me well over the past couple decades. For example:

1)  There will always be people who lie or mislead in order to protect their own self-interest. Being able to separate fact from fiction, determine what’s relevant and ensure the truth prevails requires perseverance and a Teflon shield.

2) Well-known people in the public eye generally aren’t making the biggest difference in the lives of others. There are always exceptions, but many are more intent on advancing their own agenda than they are with furthering the common good. Most often, the people behind the scenes are the ones who do the work and really know what’s happening.

3) There are always two sides to every sound bite.

From most people’s perspective, a sound bite is simply a very short clip of  a much larger conversation. But for people on both sides of the microphone, it is much, much more.

A simple statement can inspire, inform or be blown completely out of proportion when taken out of context. A few words are often louder than the most heartfelt speech.

Just ask Mitt Romney or President Obama. During this campaign season, Romney’s comment “I like being able to fire people” wasn’t referring to his record at Bain Capital, but his opponents seized the opportunity to use those words against him. A few months later, President Obama had a similar experience when he said, “You didn’t build that.”

You would think both men would more carefully choose the exact words and phrases that come out of their mouths, but they are human. And a good sound bite is irresistible to a reporter. I should know.

I’ve been on both sides of the microphone many times, and I thought I had the sound bite mastered. And then I fell into the trap myself.

My daughter was just under a year old when I took her and her four-year old brother to a public pool. My mother had joined us, and we were enjoying a sunny, summer Saturday afternoon when a muffled announcement came over the speakers: “We apologize for the inconvenience, but the pool will be closing for the rest of the day. Please exit the pool area immediately.”

Since there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, the announcement made no sense. Fortunately, one of the teenager lifeguards was my neighbor, so I asked her what was happening.

Apparently, there was a dispute between management and the lifeguards. The lifeguards were insisting that the chemical levels in the pool weren’t safe, and they were walking off the job. With no lifeguards, the pool had to close.  As other people packed up their towels and exited in mass, my mother and I decided there was no hurry and waited by the baby pool until the crowd cleared.

Just as we were finally leaving, a news van pulled into the parking lot. Since very few swimmers were left and I had a cute baby in my arms, the female reporter immediately zeroed in on me.

“Can I ask you a few questions?” she inquired breathlessly as she shoved a microphone in my face.

I agreed, and she began peppering me with questions about unsafe chemicals in the pool. Since I wasn’t really concerned and saw no reason to panic, I carefully avoided her efforts to bait me into saying anything that blew the situation out of proportion. She was obviously getting frustrated that my answers weren’t heightening the drama.  Finally, she asked, “Aren’t you concerned about the health of your baby?”

I stepped into her trap when I answered, “Of course I’m concerned about the health of my baby, I just don’t think this particular situation is going to harm her.”

A few hours later, I turned on the television news to see a lead story about how panicked parents evacuated a local pool. The story featured a carefully edited clip of me holding my daughter and saying, “I’m concerned about the health of my baby.”

I was mortified.

For the rest of the weekend, the clip played over and over again during news promos and broadcasts. My embarrassment grew when further investigation revealed that the chemical levels were fine, and that the situation had been overblown by a handful of teenage lifeguards.

For days, I was teased, even though I tried to explain that I had NOT panicked.

Years later, this story is rather funny, but it is also a cautionary tale.

Drama and conflict can be used as marketing tools and political weapons. And yes, some reporters take words out of context to create the story they want. This is especially true during an election year. No one should accept a few words at face value. We all need to do our research, determine what message was actually intended and take time to learn all the facts before making judgments and leaping to conclusions.

Take the paragraph above. Someone could easily turn it into a sound bite:  Trina Bartlett says “reporters take words out of context to create the story they want.” That would likely stir up trouble with my husband of 19 years as well as my friends in the news industry, who all do their best to maintain journalistic integrity.

The problem is too many people prefer hearing words that support their own beliefs rather than knowing the truth, and many media sources have lost the once distinct line between news and opinion. Unfortunately, many people can’t tell the difference.

Every time someone spreads false information or shares quotes that have been taken out of context, the collective integrity and intelligence of our country drops.

And yes, I would love for someone to sound bite that.

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About Trina Bartlett

I live in the Eastern Panhandle of WV, with one dog, two cats, a daughter in high school, a son starting his latest adventures at West Virginia University and a husband who works strange hours. When I'm not working as a director at a nonprofit social service organization or being a mom, I can generally be found riding my bike, walking my dog and stirring things up.

Posted on October 14, 2012, in current affairs, perspective, Politics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Love getting up on Sunday morning to another wonderful blog from Trina. Thanks so much for starting my day with such good writing and thought provoking ideas!!!!

  2. It is always dangerous to “paint with a broad brush” and when people routinely criticize entire professions, it makes me cringe. “All politicians are crooks”, “All of the media distort the truth.” and “All teachers are lazy.” How about those for annoying sound bites!
    I admire your husband, although I have no idea of where he works. Without a free media, there really can’t be democracy.

  3. FANTASTIC! Thank you so much for writing this article. Never in our history have we had such unfettered access to information, but instead of using this access to deepen our understanding of a situation or viewpoint, just the opposite can be true. When the persons mind is made up about the story they want to write, they may bait the interviewee to try and get the soundbites that will support their per-concieved point of view. And most times with a too busy, or un-informed public, it is easier to just believe what is being presented to us than to go out and research the validity of what is being reported as fact.

    • Thanks Jen… I don’t have a problem with people have truly differing opinions when they have valid points… even if I don’t agree. But I have a hard time respecting opinions that are based on nothing but twisted information.

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