ESSAY: The state of Journalism in Sweden in the age of digitisation

Essay: What is the state of Journalism in Sweden? Digitisation has brought rapid change to the media worldwide, how has this new media landscape affected the role journalism holds in the Swedish society, and what current and future problems could be identified as a result?

While researching the state of media in Sweden, the largest Nordic country by population with 9,482,855 million people, two things stand out: the lack of regulation against media ownership as well as the digitisation and its impact on media consumption.

Like its neighbour countries, Sweden has a long political tradition of being a welfare state. The authors of Nordic Statistical Yearbook 2012 describes this very well: “The core values in the Nordic welfare states are equal opportunities, social solidarity and security for all. The model promotes social rights and the principle that everyone is entitled to equal access to social and health services, education and culture. This also applies to care for social outcasts and vulnerable groups in society. One key objective is to create opportunities for all to take part in civic life and in society’s decision-making processes.”

This Nordic model of the welfare state can, when it comes to the media, be summed up as a society with a great deal of trust in the government and the press, a trust embodied in the Freedom of Information Act. Much like in the UK, this act enables anyone – including companies and foreign citizens – to gain access to official documents, whether as text, images, audio and video recordings, computer-readable files, or any other kind of information. The person requesting the information does not have to reveal their identity or reasons for making the request, and the information should be supplied promptly.

There are a number of cultural and political factors to consider which all play a part in forming the media landscape. For instance, Sweden has a long tradition of socialism. The Social Democratic party (Socialdemokraterna) has held power for 65 of the past 78 years.

Another factor here is the role and status of the journalist in society. Journalists are highly paid compared to the UK and there is stiff competition to study journalism. The three most difficult academic fields to break into are medicine, journalism and clinical psychology. This demonstrates the high regard in which journalists are held in Swedish society, which differs a great deal to many other European countries.

Sweden’s media system is based on high newspaper penetration and the dominance of public broadcasters. Press circulation is among the highest in the world and the media system can be described as a mixture of classical liberal ideas. The media’s role is to act as a watchdog for the state, an independent “fourth estate”. However, a good relationship between state and media is considered necessary to provide media plurality and a good public service.

The media market is characterised by stability and continuity. There has been little change in recent years in the ranking of the country’s most popular news providers, especially within newspapers.

The five national newspapers dominate the press. Publishing is the largest segment of the media industry, accounting for 47.7% of the industry’s total value.

Daily media reach in 2011 in the population aged 9-79 years:

  • 85% of adults watch television
  • 74% surf the internet
  • 73% read newspapers
  • 67% listen to the radio
  • 20% read a newspaper online
  • 34% read a magazine or periodical
  • 42% use social media

Source: Nordicom

Online media are growing rapidly – Aftonbladet.se has over 5.3 million unique users every week in recent studies.

Blogs in Sweden are a popular news source, the most popular blog website, blogger.se had 2.1 million unique visitors per week in November 2012.

The regulation of the Swedish media is independent from the state.

In 1766 Sweden became the first country in the world to recognise the right to information. Today, both freedom of expression and freedom of information are protected by the constitution.

The Swedish press codes of ethics could be summed up by this excerpt from the Constitution:

“The press, radio and television shall have the greatest possible degree of freedom, within the framework of the Freedom of the Press Act and the constitutional right of freedom of speech, in order to be able to serve as disseminators of news and as scrutinisers of public affairs. In this connection, however, it is important that the individual is protected from unwarranted suffering as a result of publicity.”

The Swedish press has a self-regulatory system which is voluntary and financed by four different press organisations. These are responsible for drawing up the Code of Ethics for Press, Radio and Television. These include:

  • Provide accurate news
  • Treat rebuttals generously
  • Respect individual privacy
  • Exercise care in the use of images
  • Listen to each side
  • Be cautious in publishing names

The Swedish Press Council (PON) was founded in 1916 and is the world’s oldest tribunal of its kind. PON is composed of a judge, one representative from each of the four press organisations and three from the general public who are not tied in any way to the other organisations or to the press.

The Press Ombudsman (PO) was added in 1969. He handles complaints from the public and selects cases to bring to the PON. The PO and the PON, both independent of the state, handle complaints together regarding the newspaper organisations’ print and online editions.

Dr Benedetta Brevini of City University, London, teaches media ethics. She says: “ Having some ethical standards is crucial and having some sort of code can help achieve this.” It has been argued widely that Scandinavia, Sweden in particular, is a good example of where this functions well.

There has been ongoing criticism of self-regualtion both by the public and politicians. The main claims are that the system is too tolerant and that the consequences for media breaking the rules are too trivial.

According to the authors of Mapping Digital Media, The Swedish Constitution may offer “a very strong protection of the media, but there is always an intense political debate about media ethics and the need to change the legal framework”.

Online whistle-blowing platform Wikileaks chose to host their servers in Sweden for a good reason. Legal protection of information providers is written in the constitution and effectively means that the authorities, or anyone else for that matter, are not allowed to enquire about the sources of any newspaper or media. This would make it difficult for the Swedish authorities to get rid of Wikileaks, or even to interfere in its operations.

This law could make for a more open press, as whistle blowers do not have to fear their identity being revealed. It helps cement the trust between the people and the press.

As for the impact of digitisation, it is safe to say that recent developments have rapidly changed the way journalism and media are consumed. Swedes have a history of being keen to adopt new technology.

Datamonitor’s media industry profile of the country showed that Technology and its advancements have “a profound effect on the media industry” and both the press and television are “investing heavily in new technology” to keep up with the market in Sweden and globally. The welfare state plays a part here and “ levels of internet penetration and computer use are among the highest in the world.”

Much like in other countries, the rise of social media has had profound effect on how news are consumed. In Sweden, even the police force have a Facebook account to inform the public and to appeal to them for help in investigations.

As of November 2012, there is still no regulation that particularly concerns digital and online media.

The authors of Mediers värde för olika generationer, Wadbring and Bergström says that theSwedish newspapers have a strong tradition of being the “backbone of the Swedish Media”. Their position will most likely change in the future as younger audiences increasingly prefer free digital media to paying for their newspapers.

As of November 2012 there are still no pay-walls in the online news media. All print and broadcast news outlets offer some sort of online version.

The main source for news is still television, with newspapers in second place. Although digital media platforms are growing rapidly, they still have a more supplementary role.

Although it might be surprising to some, it is worth noting that tabloid journalism plays an increasingly important role in Swedish media. Globalisation has contributed to a rise in foreign online news sources. It has been argued that this is linked to the “tabloidisation” process the country has seen in recent years. The authors of Mapping Digital Media speculate on the reasons behind this. They say: “Increased competition for advertisers and readers, as well as increased demands for profitability, have resulted in less advanced and less costly news journalism.”

The hard facts show that it is the tabloids that have the biggest circulation, both print and online. The tabloid Aftonbladet is the highest seller in terms of paid circulation. Aftonbladet.se – the paper’s online news website, is also the most popular digital news source. Its leading position could be due to the fact that they were among the first in launching the website. People are used to using it and it remains popular.

Tabloids in Sweden tend not to be as sensationalist as in the UK. In fact, in some areas – such as investigative reporting and interviews – they are as important as other newspapers.

The cultural climate doesn’t create a large market for sensationalism and the public is less inclined to read the kind of tabloid journalism that can be seen in the UK. It could also have something to do with the ethical recommendations, which are “very well-known in the newsrooms and often referred to in the debate on media performance”, as described by the authors of Mapping Digital Media.

Sweden has a high concentration of media ownership, meaning that two or more media outlets are often owned by the same company, person or organisation. The key problems one might face as a result of this is a lack of diversity and compromised balance between opposite viewpoints. Sweden has no law against media ownership concentration.

Recent figures show that Sweden and Hungary have the highest level of media concentration out of the eleven countries surveyed. Sweden showed the greatest level with the top four media groups holding 91.9 percent of the market.

This could cause problems and pose a threat to press freedom. Leading scholar C. Edwin Baker, author of Media, Markets and Democracy, discusses this. He says: “Press freedom and its capacity to serve its democratic role could be threatened from two directions: from abuse of government power or from private power and the dynamics of the market”

Many smaller publications are being bought up by larger publishing houses. Studies show that there is a growing ownership concentration within the commercial media “in all levels and in all sectors”. This could make commercial media companies dependent on fewer owners than ever.

This, says the authors of Mapping Digital Media, could have consequences for the kind of journalism Sweden produces. A new, higher, pressure on the news media “seems to have resulted in more sensational and speculative journalism that is less expensive to produce but easier to sell.”

This suggests a possible direct link between high ownership concentration and poor quality journalism. This market-driven development could according to the authors pose a threat to media diversity and pluralism as fewer media alternatives are offered to citizens in many regions of the country.

The ongoing digitisation makes for a media market under economic pressure. Although digitisation makes it easier to produce news in one way it also increases competition and a need for high profitability. It is difficult to compete with these big media companies and one result of the high ownership concentration is few new and successful entrants to the market.

A press on benefits? Sweden has a scheme that gives governmental aid to publications with declining circulation in order to promote media pluralism. This has caused some controversy. However the European Commission approved the scheme in 2010 after reviewing it and after some reforms to get it in line with EU regulations.

Professor Roy Greenslade comments on this in his Guardian blog: “I can’t imagine the British government, or the British newspaper industry, following the model for dealing with failing newspapers in Sweden where state subsidies are handed out to papers that lose sales”. At the time of writing, both Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet, the two largest broadsheets in Sweden, received some sort of subsidy from the government.

State funding and subsidy of the press could be considered a form of regulation. It can be argued that if a newspaper receive money from the state it may be less inclined to scrutinise the government and to hold them to account. Some publications are funded, or at least partly funded by the state. It is also possible to apply for state funding to set up a public-service radio station.

Studies have shown that public service television ratings have declined, and that the Swedes spend, on average, more money on private television than on the license fee.

There are many possible contributing factors here. Public service broadcast media had a strong position during the period 1950-2000, however, they have “gradually lost their importance”. Technology, a growing digital media and a different media market are important factors when explaining their declining audience.

Public service media has had some difficulties competing with commercial media online.

The authors of Mapping Digital Media says: “Looking ahead, the core challenge facing public service broadcasting is the transition to public service media. Politicians have generally been supportive of the expansion of public service onto new platforms, and there is a social consensus that public service media remain important.”

One of the reasons for this is that the public service bodies have to present any new outlets and services to their commercial media competitors before launching. This procedure, according to Eva Hamilton, Director of SVT – the public service-television body “pose a significant threat to public service media”. She argues that by announcing the new services in advance, their competitors “have time to prepare their own improved services of the same kind”. This is makes it difficult for the public service to compete since they are always “number two in the market”.

To sum-up, the media system in Sweden has a long history of high newspaper penetration and a strong public service. Press circulation figures are among the highest in the world but the broadcast media has decreased lately. Most people use internet daily and digitisation of the media is growing.

Sweden could benefit from regulations regarding media ownership as the current concentration of ownership could be linked to poor quality journalism and it could be a threat to diversity and media pluralism.

We could soon see a new media climate in Sweden, one that is very different from what it has looked like in the past. The rapid growth in of both digital and online media contribute to these changes and many of the problems the media are facing. One of these problems is that the public service media is in decline. Its lack of ability to compete with commercial news websites in Sweden and globally means that its previous consumers are turning to commercial media. Public service is much interfered with while commercial media ownership is not. Public service media does not need the consumers money like the commercial media does. However, what is the point of public service if nobody is consuming it.

This essay was part of my media ethics module at City University, London

References:

Hallin, D.C. and Mancini, P.  Comparing Media Systems: Three Models of Media and Politics. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004

Baker, C.E. Media, Markets and democracy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002

Baker, C.E. Media concentration and democracy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007

Nissen, C.S. Making a difference, public service broadcasting in the European Media Landscape, John Libbey Publishing /European Broadcasting Union, 2006

Curran, J, Media and Power, London, Routledge, 2002.

H. Hvitfelt and G. Nygren, Medievärlden 2020 (Media World 2020), Lund, 2008

I. Wadbring and A. Bergström, “Mediers värde för olika generationer,” (Media’s value for different generations) in S. Holmberg and L. Weibull , Nordiskt ljus (Nordic light), Stockholm, 2008

Journal articles:

Nord, L. Mapping Digital Media, Open Society Foundations, 2011, URL (consulted 1 December 2012) http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/sites/default/files/mapping-digital-media-sweden-20110920.pdf

Benson, R. Normative Theories, (New York University)(Forthcoming, International Encyclopedia of Communication, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers).

Web references:

Nordic Statistical Yearbook, URL, 2012 http://www.norden.org/en/publications/publikationer/2012-001, (consulted 04.12.12)

Datamonitor, Media Industry Profile: Sweden 2012, 2012, URL, www.datamonitor.com, (consulted 01.12.12)

Nordicom, Press release, 2011, URL, http://www.nordicom.gu.se/common/stat_xls/2270_P008_Press_release_Mbar2011.pdf, consulted 04.12.12

University College London’s constitution unit, URL, http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/research/foi/countries/sweden, (consulted 05.12.12)

Kia Index, weekly index, URL, http://www.kiaindex.net/, (consulted 01.12.12)

URL, http://ethics.iit.edu/ecodes/node/3704, (consulted 01.12.12)

URL, http://www.ejc.net/media_news/sweden_and_hungary_lead_media_concentration_table/, (consulted 04.12.12)

URL: http://www.europolitics.info/business-competitiveness/green-light-to-sweden-s-newspaper-aid-scheme-art278440-3.html (consulted 04.12.12)

Greenslade, R. Guardian article, URL http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/greenslade/2008/nov/17/sweden-pressandpublishing?INTCMP=SRCH, (consulted 04.12.10)

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