Attention please ...
A recent letter to the editor by Harold Warner caught my attention. He complains about televisions in every waiting room creating noise pollution he can’t escape. I agree entirely.
It’s not just doctors’ offices. Most restaurants have several televisions on, including in children’s play areas.
And most don’t seem to care what they show. It’s common to have news programs on, but in some locations, several screens will display different programs simultaneously.
I was having dinner with my family in Visalia a couple of years ago. On the screen in front of me were several televisions. One was playing a soap opera that would go back and forth between several scenes as these shows tend to do. In this case, one of the scenes was a violent rape.
I called over the waitress and mentioned what the show was playing, asking her to change the channel. She helpfully complied, but didn’t seem the slightest bit shocked or embarrassed by what her restaurant had been showing to a room full of families. Just another day; another overly sensitive customer.
I would take it one step further than Mr. Warner. He is unbothered by these televisions as long as the sound is turned off. We all know that most of us watch too much television. Why the need to thrust it on is when we don’t want it and can’t hear the sound?
Of course, when I go to the gym, usually they have 24-hour news and sports channels on. That’s when I’m glad to have my earphones. It’s much more enjoyable to listen to the new Paul Thorn album — or an old Merle Haggard one — than the inane pundits.
But it’s not just the sound. The constant flickering images has an effect on all of us. There is substantial research linking television to reduced attention spans, especially in children.
Of course, it’s hard to pinpoint cause and effect here. As much as television may have reduced our attention spans, the reduced attention spans of many Americans is one reason why the televisions are being installed so many places.
Restaurant owners would likely tell you that customers want the TVs. Many of us simply aren’t used to a quiet place of business. Soft music isn’t enough anymore, we must inundate the senses in order to keep people coming in.
America’s reduced attention span contributes to the dumbing down of our culture. A recent study by Indiana University professors Erik Bucy and Maria Grabe found that the average television soundbite is now down to a mere eight seconds.
Responding to a similar study in the 1990s — it was about nine seconds then — CBS made a bold attempt to push back against the trend. They announced that they would use no soundbite under 30 seconds. What they found was that politicians and pundits had become so used to the short soundbite that they had trouble finding longer quotes to use. Their experiment was quickly abandoned.
It hasn’t always been this way. In 1968, the average soundbite was 43 seconds.
It’s not just television and not all of this has happened recently. Another study by University of Nevada professors David M. Ryfe and Markus Kemmelmeier recently found that the average political quote in a newspaper had been cut in half — between 1892 and 1916.
Interestingly, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing at the time. Journalism was professionalizing and becoming less partisan leading to more and better analysis instead of just reprinting the words of politicians. Today, the opposite is true, so perhaps we’ll see longer quotes, but that won’t necessarily be an improvement.
I’ve seen this a bit in my work, both professional and personal. A couple of years ago, when part of the Kern Community College District Leadership Academy, I participated in some media training, led by a team of media professionals.
We were videotaped in interviews about our jobs and our performances were critiqued. The biggest criticism made of my interview — I spoke using sentences that are too long for television.
I tend to push back against this a bit. My job is complex and it’s not something easy to explain in an eight second soundbite.
Contrary to what you see on TV every day, the same is true of most political ideas. If you can explain it in eight seconds, you’re probably oversimplifying.
I’d say the same of this column. I struggle at times with the word limit — currently about 800 words — but I struggle more often with the way newspapers are written. The mantra is “short paragraphs, short sentences”. In any other context, that’s considered bad writing. But with narrow columns and numerous stories on any one page, it’s a part of the business.
But it doesn’t have to be.
Michael Carley is a resident of Porterville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.