Visualcy, Newspapers, and Political Communication

As I was writing my earlier post this morning, more on visualcy and political communication occurred to me and, rather than including it in the last post, I decided to give it a post of its own. Something I don’t believe I’ve discussed in my various posts on visualcy (see the category for more) is the impact that the changes in communication modality over time have had on political communication.

Back at the start of the Republic in the late 18th century although literacy rates were pretty high oral communication remained the primary method for communicating information. It was a vestigial oral society. Comprehension of utterances and retention was better than reading comprehension and retension of written information. This remained the case for roughly the next century.

Not coincidentally this was the golden age for American oratory.

Note, however, that while Lincoln’s Gettysburg and 2nd Inaugural Addresses are great speeches, they also excel as the written word, indeed IMO they’re among the greatest written works in the English language. Most people who were aware of and influenced by these speeches encountered them as they were reprinted in newspapers and broadsides. The primary modality for political communication had become the written word.

That continued for nearly a century. Again, not coincidentally the period 1860 to 1950 was the heroic age of the American newspaper, the period of their greatest influence. They were the medium through which political figures communicated. Although this began to erode in the 1930’s with the growth of commercial radio, the decline began in earnest with the advent of television and by 1960 the Nixon-Kennedy debates demonstrated quite clearly that the primary modality for political communication here had changed again. Listening to the debate on the radio or reading it conveyed a different message from watching it.

For good or ill I believe we have entered a period during which visual communication has become the primary modality for political communication. Bear that in mind the next time you watch one of President Obama’s speeches. You might even want to turn off the sound. What he says or how he says it is probably not as important as the message that he conveys, deliberately or inadvertently, by what he looks like when he says it.

3 comments… add one
  • Larry Link

    Have you read Jeffrey Scheuer’s book “The Sound Bite Society”?

  • PD Shaw Link

    Lincoln is the transitional figure btw/ written and verbal communication. I didn’t fully realize this until I read Douglas Wilson’s “Lincoln’s Sword,” but many/most of his speeches were “rewritten” for publication to take full advantage of the strengths and weaknesses of the different media.

    Today, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more people reading the President’s speeches than say 10-20 years ago, just because most newspapers haven’t bothered to reprint speeches for some time. I think current politicians have three media that are being consumed by different groups (the written, the verbal and the visual).

  • Brett Link

    To be honest, I’m somewhat wary of being a “visual” society. We human beings are such visual creatures (hence statements like “a picture is worth a thousand words”), and images/movies/videos can produce much more visceral and emotional reactions that the printed word.

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