Our Sound Bite Culture Should Provide More Questions than Answers

According to the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, journalists should "make certain that headlines, news teases, photos, video, audio graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context."

I doubt the above statement would create much dissent among journalists. But the very nature of sound bites seems to challenge this high journalistic standard. I would further add that the recipient of sound bites also must employ his own set of ethics.

This is not to suggest that sound bites or their use is somehow inherently evil. Sound bites have a way of canonizing moments in history.

* "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
* "I have a dream!"
* "The Eagle has landed."
* "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

All are examples of sound bites that elicit great pride in our culture.

But when we the public make the sound bite the end and not the beginning, we risk violating what the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics warns journalists to guard against.

The recent statements of Rev. Jeremiah Wright serve as a classic case study of the power of the sound bite to form a conclusion rather than being a starting point for inquiry.

Last week, I received several e-mails in response to a recent column about the black church's prophetic tradition in which I failed to include Rev. Wright's statements that the federal government systematically put AIDS into the black community. As one reader asked: "How does this stupid rhetoric come across to people who have dedicated their lives to confronting the stigma of HIV and AIDS?"

On its surface, a sound bite asserting that the U.S. government spread AIDS in the black community does more to promote demagoguery, paranoia and conspiracy theories than offering any type of substantive critique.

What's more, the enthusiastic embrace of Rev. Wright's statements by his congregation makes members appear Stepford-like in support of their pastor. But to reach such conclusions based solely on sound bites is to risk being guilty of the same charges levied against the congregation.

While I don't agree with Wright's claims about HIV/AIDS, I understand how he might arrive at his conclusions.

The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, for instance, was a 40-year period when the U.S. Public Health Service conducted experiments on 400 black men in Alabama suffering from the late stages of syphilis.

With no intention of curing the victims, these men were allowed to succumb to the ravages of the disease, which included paralysis, blindness, heart disease, insanity and death. All the men were told was that they were being treated for "bad blood."

The notion that the federal government -- nine years before and 22 years after the defeat of Nazi Germany -- would use poor, illiterate black men as laboratory animals is deplorable by any standard.

As inflammatory as Wright's sound bites may be to some, this history gives them a different context.

But ours is a sound bite culture, emphasizing the quick and easy over in-depth study and critical analysis. From drive-thru fast food to politics and religion, a premium is placed on someone else doing the thinking -- telling us what to believe in a simple and digestible format.

Words like "intellectual" and "academic" are often used as pejoratives in our public discourse. In a sound-bite culture, the advantage goes to the one who has more answers than questions, but in these challenging times we may require the exact opposite.

The sound bite culture provides an advantage to contemporary conservatism, be the topic politics or religion. The uncomplicated policy or theological answer tends to be preferred over one that factors in nuance.

I also understand that many feel overwhelmed not only by such critical issues as a tenuous economy, an unpopular war and escalating gas prices, but also by the information explosion and a complex technological culture.

The desire to retreat toward the path of least resistance makes sense. This, unfortunately, is tantamount to shirking one's democratic responsibility. As daunting as it can feel, some things cannot be fully understood in a 30-second sound bite.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of "Strip Mall Patriotism: Moral Reflections of the Iraq War." E-mail him at byron@byronspeaks.com or go to his website, byronspeaks.com

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