Television News: Absolution for Couch Potatoes

The knock on television news has long been that it emphasizes style over substance. But style, it turns out, may have some serious substance of its own. In their forthcoming book, "Image Bite Politics," Indiana researchers Erik Bucy and Maria Grabe offer absolution for couch potatoes, defending the flickering tube as a source of valuable political information. Their study begins like a typical broadside, reporting that between 1992 and 2004, network TV coverage of the presidential race got even flimsier: the average length of each candidates' TV sound bites continued to fall, from a high of 40 seconds in 1968 to less than eight seconds in 2004, while image bites—the generic footage that rolls while reporters narrate—swelled to more than a quarter of all coverage. Image bites are primarily nibbles of B-roll: soundless shots of John McCain grilling burgers, Barack Obama bowling or George Bush on wheels.

But Bucy and Grabe see an upside to this dumbing-down trend. Image bites may look like empty filler, they note, but those fleeting pictures are actually rich windows into each candidate's emotional and physical readiness to lead. "We are hard-wired to pick up on hints of fear, evasion and secondary status based on a quick read of someone's face," says Bucy, explaining how a superficial reading can be as informative as hard analysis. "Show a completely uninitiated person a 10-second video clip of candidates running for office," he adds, "and even with the sound off they will accurately predict nearly 70 percent of the time who won the race." The authors also unpack sound bites, concluding that nearly 70 percent of them are "essentially issue-focused," dealing with policies and qualifications.

In his 2005 book "Blink," Malcolm Gladwell collected similar cases, including students who can tell from just a few minutes of video whether a teacher receives positive reviews, and a psychologist who can read a couple's three-minute conversation for whether they are destined to split. By the same token, researchers say, television provides voters with the raw material to sniff out lies. What's still unclear is how people factor in other sources of information, like newspaper articles, when they interpret TV images. As Bucy points out, perception does not always equal truth: "The candidate that looks stronger on TV isn't always the better president. Bush vs. Gore proved that."