Hearing Is Believing: A Comparison of Romney and Obama Sound Bites

Oct 15, 2012
Originally published on December 6, 2012 3:27 pm

You are sure of what you heard: NPR is giving more air time to presidential challenger Mitt Romney than to President Barack Obama.

Some listeners say the opposite, but during this election cycle and immediate past ones, the complaints have been running heavily in your direction of detecting a Republican bias in the use of sound bites. (Where are you NewsBusters?)

Calling it a "strange pattern emerging," Calvin Grant of Oak Park, Ill., was typical. And precise. "The Republican candidate typically gets two blurbs and the Democratic candidate one," he wrote.

Such complaints were particularly vigorous following both the first presidential debate and the vice presidential one. So, on the eve of this second presidential joust, I thought I might actually look and compare the coverage of the first two matches as a warning to reporters on what to avoid.

Alas, what I found was rather boring. Measuring the air time of sound bites on Morning Edition and All Things Considered the day after each debate, I found a virtual dead heat in time by the Democratic and Republican candidates. The clips in a candidate's own voice are considered to be the most powerful messages in his favor.

Editors and producers swear that they do not count sound bite minutes or keep quotas—that they let the importance of the story and statements rule—though they do acknowledge that they try in their heads to informally maintain a rough balance in time and attention between the two presidential candidates.

However informal their heads, they are remarkably successful.

The proportion of sound bite time between Romney and Obama on the day after their debate was 51:49 in Romney's favor, according to a study by ombudsman intern Laura Schwartz. The difference amounts to a mere 15 seconds over the course of a day—not much of a Republican advantage.

The voice clips of Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan were equally close in total time the day after their debate. The proportion was 52:48 in Ryan's favor, with an actual time difference again of just 15 seconds.

What really happens is that to us as listeners, sound bites from people we don't agree with stand out and often infuriate us. We blow them up to be bigger than they are.

But don't believe me. For the next day or so after the upcoming debate between Romney and Obama, listen yourself and see what you think. But be honest and measure their statements with a stopwatch.

Intern Laura Schwartz contributed to this report.


More from the ombudsman:

That's 'Mister' To You, Buddy

We Write The Headlines; You Decide The Bias

Pulling The Curtain Back On NPR's Election Coverage

Follow Edward Schumacher-Matos on Twitter and Facebook.

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