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24 hour news and nationalism

Discussion of 24-hour cable news in the US tends to focus on sensationalism, breathlessness and the relentless schedule imposed in this new newsgathering and reporting order. The session at the Perugia Journalism Festival titled “24/7 The hows and whys of rolling news” had something of a different focus – the role of cable news channels as suporting a national identity and the difficulty of making this model financially sustainable. Perhaps the contrast is explained by moderator Roberto Chinzari’s repeated use of the term “anglo-saxon models”, in contrasting how 24-hour news channels in Spain, Italy and the Arab world contrast to CNN and the BBC. Specifically, Chinzari credits CNN with inventing “news as flow” rather than something presented in periodic bulletins.

Barbara Serra, a presenter for Al Jazeera English in London and a former Italian television journalist, explains that AJE sees itself as bringing a distinctly Arabic point of view to world news, and in presenting “things that are uncomfortable to hear, different point of view.” Since the world doesn’t speak Arabic, and since more than a billion people speak English, it makes sense for the network to prive English-language programming… as well as insights into how Al Jazeera sees the world.

A similar logic underlies Canal 24 Horas, represented here by deputy director José Maria Pedrero. The station emerged from a government-owned station during privatization and has been an all-news channel for 11 years, presenting news to a global audience in Spanish. He asserts that the reach is beyond Latin America and Spain, and that there’s global interest in the language and culture, which Canal 24 allows people to connect with.

Moderator Chinzari comments that France 24, the new French-language news channel, has been described by a British newspaper as “the product of an irritated nation, frustrated that the world speaks English, not French.” Nicola Lombardo of SkyTG24 Italy doesn’t take the bait and argue that there’s a need for an Italian viewpoint on world affairs. Instead, he outlines the competition between his channel and Rai24, an earlier entrant into the market. Lombardo sees an advantage in running his channel, which was built from scratch with few experienced journalists. 24 hour news is for the strong, he tells us: “you must be very physically strong, not just mentally strong, because there is no opportunity to relax.” He welcomes competition in the field, arguing that with little more than €20-30m, a competitor could enter the game.

Why a competitor would want to enter is a question, though. Lombardo points out that his channel loses money, and is subsidized by other Sky properties. Corradina Mineo of his competitor, Rai24, has a different situation. He admits that Rai has lost market share to Sky, first by experimenting with clumsy versions of interactivity, and now because the network operates at a loss and doesn’t provide tremendous support for the channel. That said, he’s proud of the station’s African and Asian coverage, and points to the public service function of the station, informing Italians on parts of the world they hear little about. But he has no imperial ambitions for the channel: “The French wanted to bring their point of view to the world in all languages because they thought their point of view was most imporant. This doesn’t happen in Italy.” Rai24 could easily be broadcasting in Arabic – they already translate the 7pm mews into Arabic – but it isn’t a network priority.

Chinzari mentions that most of these networks are highly dependent on shared footage from Reuters and other news bureas. Are they really doing original reporting? And if not, why the need for constrant coverage? Pedrero points to a network of correspondents in the US, Israel and China, and mentions a large set of other correspondents who “work primarily for Cana 24 Horas”. Serra mentions that a Jazeera colleague was in Tibet, under cover, and was able to provide reporting that wouldn’t otherwise have aired. But everyone’s operating in this business at a loss, and therefore it’s hard to pay for too many correspondents.

Serra also explains that the “grammar of 24 hour news” – as created by CNN – misuses correspondents in the field. Because a journalist is forced to be live, on the hour, every hour, she ends up with 40 minute windows in which to report a story. That ends up meaning that the story is often bureau footage with the reporter simply proving that she’s there on the scene. Minero argues that this is what the networks often want – they simply dictate to their reporters in the field what should be said, and use their presence as evidence of their global reach. And Pedrero points out that it’s seldom seasoned, experienced journalists who volunteer to travel to Iraq – instead, you get young journalists desperate to make a name for themselves.

Minero, in particular, mourns the death of in-depth, in the field journalism. “Did you really know more from the journos who were in Baghdad during the war? I got more from Bernardo Valli, who didn’t tell me what I read on the web, but got the odor of Baghdad.” It’s more than the odor, they agree – it’s the knowledge. There’s widespread mourning of the days in which foreign correspondents got to read books about the places they were travelling – news cycles are much faster now, and parachute journalism appears to be the rule in 24 hour news, both within and outside the “anglo-saxon” networks.

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