What is the power of journalism, the editors of Schibsted Future Report asked me, and could I write an engaging text about this in the 2018 report? It is a big enough subject. But to me, one thing is becoming more and more evident: It’s all about irrefutable facts, context, and depth.
This is how media of today should meet the ongoing challenges. This is how we can move opinions and insights and keep exposing abuse of power, injustices, and lies.
One incident in my early days as a journalist made me very aware of this.
The afternoon in the newsroom at the newspaper VG had been typically quiet on this somewhat slow day in July. I arrived at my work as news editor around 1:30 p.m. and now, an hour or so later, we still did not have one single thing going that would make even the most excited reader raise an eyebrow. The only good thing was that Bruce Springsteen was in town.
But then, well into the evening, the newspaper received a tip saying that Norway’s most famous drug criminal had escaped while having a birthday dinner in a hotel in the chain Relais & Châteaux. He had been granted leave from the prison to celebrate his 33rd birthday. With him was a 24-year-old prison guard, whose task it was to make sure he did not run away. A social worker, who had visited him regularly in prison, was also invited to the dinner.
I was new to VG and to the position as news editor, having been there for only three months, but this evening was to become decisive for my understanding of what it is that brings power to journalism.
We immediately sent reporters to the place from which he had escaped. The prison that he was confined to was in the same town, about 50 kilometers south of Oslo. I kept in close contact with our people on the ground. Speaking with the reporter who had been at the hotel I asked: “Do you have a copy of the check?”
“No, I didn’t think of that, but I believe I can get it.” An hour later, a copy of the check came ticking out of the fax machine. This happened in 1988, and in those days the fax was the Hope Diamond of information technology.
I had a quick look at the check and felt instinctively that it was going to have an effect on Norwegian crime policies. I have worked in journalism for 37 years. Still, those moments when I immediately feel this specific piece of news will have political consequences, or make life better for at least some people, are markers for the buzzing feeling of the power of journalism. And the knowledge that you have been unusually lucky in your choice of occupation.
The jailed narcotics smuggler obviously had expensive habits. He relished in duck breast, red wine, “marquise au chocolat” with strawberry sauce, dry martini, and exquisite whisky at the Relais & Châteaux restaurant, before he asked to be excused and left for the bathroom.
He did not come back.
To grant a leave to a rough drug criminal and letting him spend a lot of money on fine food, in a place where most law-abiding citizens couldn’t afford to eat, would always create a stir. But it was the exposure of the actual check, paid by the prison employee, that really ignited the debate: duck breast, expensive wine, dry martini, and whisky!
For me, publishing the check became the symbol of the fact that journalism delivers the heaviest punches when it has precise facts. When a revelation resounds with the readers, it can mean laws are changed, the political debate takes a new course, or obvious faults are corrected.
At the time when the drug smuggler enjoyed his duck’s breast, there was no such thing as the digital motorway. No one carried a smartphone in his pocket and no one had been given the tools to bring the conversation into the public domain through social media.
Today anyone can be his or her own broadcaster. The inherent mechanisms in social media, that reinforce exaggerated views and plainly false information, are undermining the credibility of the media using an aggressive and polarising rhetoric. Propaganda, manifestly aimed at influencing people’s opinions with a one-sided presentation of information, are passed on in the news stream in the same form and with the same expression as the most meticulous revelation.
This topography means that, if journalism should have a true strength, it has to present irrefutable facts in a matter-of-fact and impartial manner. We are inundated by quick-witted sentences, but I am becoming more and more convinced it is precise facts that can move opinions.
Jan Helin, my good friend for many years as editor-in-chief of Aftonbladet and now director of programmes at Swedish Public Service TV, has put it this way: “If one was given the chance to wish for a new trend in journalism, it would be that we became able to make stars out of journalists who are opinion-resistant and who, with a passion for facts, manage to tell stories in an exciting and matter-of-fact way.”
At its best, journalism contributes to a functioning democracy by diminishing the gap between what the citizens know and what they need to know about the world around them.
The more efficient we are in exposing the squandering of resources and abuse of power, in giving a voice to the silent, in highlighting the circumstances for the weakest, the better the democracy can become. And that is precisely why the autocrats are constantly attacking the media: The aim of journalism to expose abuse of power, injustices, and lies.
Therein lies the power of journalism.
Therein lies the justification of claiming that journalism is a pillar in any civilized society. Therein lies the fundament to herald journalism as a central part of the democratic infrastructure.