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Mar 26 2012

The Fickleness of News

By Daphna Baram

After a few strong and busy months of news, there’s always a slow one. The reasons for it are not always lack of news happening. Sometimes we are looking at the weeks ahead, making sure we have correspondents in all of our “forward planning” spots, securing feed points and sorting out insurance for those travelling, posting updates, videos and reports, and then… news interest seems to go elsewhere.

Trying to predict where news interest will go is essential to the business of news. It is also as secure a vocation as attempting to predict the weather for a summer wedding in the UK. The buntings can hang from the terraces, the flower arrangements may decorate the white tableclothed tables, but sudden torrential rain may well force the guests into the nearest pub.

Sometimes the reasons are very clear. A big and surprising news event – a sudden war, a natural disaster, a big scale terror attack in an unexpected location – can divert the world’s attention and take over the news agenda. On other occasions, if the event is planned ahead and “big” enough, all major broadcasters may decide to send their own correspondents in to cover it, in which case the freelancers might find themselves out of work for a while.

Sometimes a broadcaster’s foreign news agenda gets hijacked by an event involving ex-pats abroad getting into trouble, like Canadian contractors kidnapped in Nigeria, British tourists fall victim to crime in Antigua, or French aid workers held hostage in Chad. The rest of the world’s media may well keep going about its business, but the homeland of the players involved shifts its eyes to the scene.

In absence of earthquakes, real or metaphorical, it is sometimes the quirky story that attracts the heart and the commissioning instinct, especially as the days grow longer and the weather warmer. The last few summers, despite its “silly season” reputation, were packed with “real” news. But today, as the spring conquers over London with bright sunshine and flowers in bloom, we had more requests for “English people out in the parks in bathing suits” than demands for coverage of President Obama’s speech in Seoul.

We’ve also noticed that sometimes newsrooms tend to follow a story or an area more closely because they, or their audience, have “fallen in love” with a certain correspondent. An appealing and skilled reporter could keep a story on the news agenda for some broadcasters for quite a few days after the rest of the media has moved on to the next hot-spot.

But sometimes an event may walk the line between “potentially huge” and “we can take it or leave it”. This week opens with one of those – Pope Benedict’s visit to Cuba. The tensions between the communist regime and the Catholic Church could make for a fascinating historical event. Opposition groups in Cuba are protesting, millions of believers are celebrating, while Castro’s government braces itself warily for what could be a potential big PR boost, but at the same time harbours its own little perils.

GRN’s correspondent in Havana Luis Chirino is ready with hour to hour coverage of the Pontiff’s visit, but so far interest has been lukewarm. Cuba has lost its threatening mystique in the eyes of the Western media, and the awkward dance between the church and the government in socialist states seem to be a distant memory from the good, or bad, old days of the Cold War.

All this, of course, can change in a drop of a hat if the Holy Father, not particularly famous for his outstanding diplomatic skills, makes a controversial statement, official or unintended. A gay-rights gaff, a criticism of the state of human rights under the Castro brothers, or even a surprising call to the West to re-embrace Cuba, could give the visit a new spin and invoke media interest.

Because even when news editors seem to be taking a nap, they always keep one eye half open for that good old twist, which turns a “story of sorts” into top-of-the-hour news.

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