In the hot, sultry days of summer, light fare is the order of the day. That‘s true not only for food, wine, and clothing, but for daily news as well.
Care for a swim in the Rhine?
Around the end of June, they start to appear: Crocodiles in the river Rhine. A whale in the Kiel harbor. A dog-eating catfish. It's a headline phenomenon that occurs each year when weightier topics are hard to come by and what might at other times be deemed trivia is suddenly trussed up and elevated to front-page level. And in Germany it even has a name: the "Sommerloch."
The "summer hole" is a phenomenon not only in the frenetic interiors of news rooms, but in any area that requires shoveling a steady stream of content into a predetermined-sized void. Television programmers talk of the "Sommerloch", for example, as do movie studios and politicians.
'Sour pickle time'
Also known in Germany as "sour pickle time" (a phrase that, despite uncertainty over its origins, nonetheless evokes biting the bullet and publishing sub-par material) the phenomenon is a strictly European one. That's because unlike in an American summer -- where the nation's work may slow down a bit but never simply stops -- in Europe, business and politics simply grind to a halt in August. And most journalists take off to the seaside as well. The result? A sad lack of material for the daily newspapers.
Loch Ness monster
Thus, most frequently runaway crocodiles, the state of the ozone layer, unhappy royalty, and the escapades of divas and/or athletes make summer headlines. Sample this: Last summer, a giant catfish attacked a small dog, out for a walk with its owner near Düsseldorf; In June 2001 news that a giant crocodile was sighted in the tranquil waters of the Rhine river sent shockwaves through Germany; This year, water monsters' stock is down: U.K. broadcaster BBC filled its own summer hole by announcing a study that proved the Loch Ness monster (photo) doesn't exist.
The "hole" is not only caused by the fact that politicians, journalists and media consumers up and away from the daily grind, says Jo Gröbel head of the European Media Institute in Düsseldorf. "When it gets really hot, people don't want to deal with difficult topics," he told the DDP news agency.
Thus more space is made for any story containing wild rumors about (mostly exotic) animals or unknown politicians, Gröbel says. In particular, "the pardonable sins get blown out of proportion, until they become a theme in themselves," he adds. Example: last year's frequent flyer affair, which nobody mentions any more. These kind of debates have "become a ritual, like at Advent," in summer.
However the media doesn't always manage to keep summer fare suitably "light," according to Gröbel. The desperation to find news to fill up the daily broadsheets sometimes sees hacks resorting to playing up issues that don't necessarily merit the attention.
According to a study by the media-analysis institute Media Tenor, there was a boom in reporting on internal security and criminality in the summer of 1994, although statistics on criminal activity in Germany failed to back up the need for such a news focus. The study lamented that such reporting could cause feelings of insecurity among the population.
Whales, islands - and crocodiles
In 2002, news leading into the German parliamentary elections, the anticipation over whether then Telekom chief Ron Sommer would resign, and high-pitch media speculation following vacation shots of controversial Defense Minister Rudolph Scharping frolicking in a pool with his girlfriend just before a risky deployment of German troops to Macedonia, also failed to stay true to the spirit of "Sommerloch." Will 2003 continue in this vein?
"At the moment there are too many hard-hitting topics to really talk about a 'summer hole'," says Gröbel: For instance, agenda items like health reform and the ongoing crisis at the metal workers' union IG Metall are ensuring that headlines remain serious.
Still, news outlets have found space in their lineups for lighter fare. Recent reports spoke of a new trend in male sexuality (metrosexuality), a brand-new island emerging from the North Sea (or was it already there, and just got a little bit bigger?) and how visitors to Kiel's harbor are going crazy over a visiting finnback whale (he's living off herring in a Kiel fjord).
And August hasn't even started yet. There's still time for Germany's annual summer crocodile to scare the living daylights out of bathers in the Rhine.