Published August 4, 2015
Browsing the news this past October, a headline on local newspaper Morgunblaðið’s website caught my eye: “Icelandic Girl In The New York Times.” My interest was stoked. Who was this Icelandic girl, I wondered, and why was she in the New York Times? Had I missed some sort of nationally relevant accomplishment? Was there a new pop star person coming up? An Icelandic criminal abroad?
I read on. “Birta Guðrún Brynjarsdóttir is a threeand-a-half-year-old girl from Reykjavík,” the article’s lede said. “She eats oatmeal for breakfast and takes cod-liver oil. The Vitamin D in the cod-liver oil is especially good for Icelanders over the winter when the sun doesn’t shine as much.” That’s hardly newsworthy, I thought.
Delving further into the story, I learned that Morgunblaðið was, in fact, reporting on a photo story in the New York Times entitled “Rise and Shine: What kids around the world eat for breakfast.” While that piece was interesting in its own right, the Morgunblaðið article seemed out of place, as the newspaper’s audience—Icelanders—would be hard-pressed to find anything newsworthy about Birta’s breakfast—or, indeed, the health benefits of cod-liver oil. Based on the emphasis in the headline, coupled with the article’s complete lack of substance in terms of news, it seemed that Icelandic media considered the appearance of an Icelander and her breakfast in the paper of record to be an important story in and of itself.
Over the next few days, I came across a number of similar stories in which the Icelandic media reported on the international press reporting on Iceland. The way the Icelandic media framed its coverage gave the impression that Icelanders are deeply preoccupied with international attention, and, in particular, how they appear in global media. Regardless of how trivial a topic was (“Icelandic House On The New York Times Website), local media would excitedly pick up the story, focusing near-exclusively on the fact that Iceland had made the news abroad. The headlines furthermore seemed to fall in either of two categories: “The world noticed us” and “The world likes us.”
While one should be careful assigning a psyche to a group of people, these kinds of articles seem to indicate a nation suffering from a collective histrionic personality disorder. The title of this article, “PRAISE ME,” is a mnemonic for the symptoms of the condition, which is characterized by a need to be at the center of attention, a distorted self-image, a self-esteem based and dependent on the approval of others—rather than a genuine sense of self-worth.
Researching the topic, I discovered that I was far from the first person to notice Icelanders’ apparent obsession with their standing in the international media—indeed, Grapevine has through the years published several articles that either gently mock the phenomenon or take it as an indicator of underlying social ills.
However, I started to wonder: is one of the key underlying assumptions of my social critique true? That is, does the Icelandic press actually cover these kinds of articles frequently? And does their coverage then betray the nation’s preoccupation with being in the spotlight and its need for external validation?
Behind The Scenes
This article is based on a study of how Iceland’s dailies, Morgunblaðið and Fréttablaðið (including their online sites mbl.is and visir.is) picked up and reported on articles about Iceland in the New York Times (including its website nytimes.com).
Getting the articles
Using the New York Times Article Search API, every article containing the words “Iceland” or “Icelandic” was retrieved from 2004 through 2013, including those sourced from AP, Reuters, Bloomberg News and the International Herald Tribune (now called the International New York Times).
From roughly 3,000 results, which were exported to a .csv file with fields for the articles’ publication date, headline, abstract, section, source, and url, 445 articles were distinguished from those that simply mentioned Iceland in passing. These 445 articles were placed into categories that mostly approximated newspaper sections and assigned a unique subject.
Determining the pickup rate
To determine the rate at which Iceland’s dailies picked up articles featuring Iceland in the New York Times, the term “New York Times” was searched for in Morgunblaðið and Fréttablaðið via CreditInfo’s Fjölmiðlavaktin, which has a database of articles scanned from those papers. Additionally, mbl.is and visir.is were searched separately for the term via their respective search functions.
Next, an article featuring Iceland in the New York Times was flagged as being picked up if an article in the local media specifically referenced that New York Times article. An article in the New York Times was not flagged if an article in the local media simply discussed the same topic or loosely referenced international coverage.
Additionally, the headlines of articles in the Icelandic media were placed into the categories: “We are liked,” “We are not liked,” “We are getting attention,” and “Other.” It should be noted that articles in the “Other” category could have placed emphasis on the fact that Iceland or an Icelandic person, place or entity was liked or received attention, but this fact was not apparent from the headline, alone.
What about Malta?
Rinse and repeat with Malta’s equivalent dailies.
To find out, I systematically investigated the media coverage of such stories over a ten-year period, from 2004 through 2013. Specifically, I decided to analyze how Iceland’s two dailies, Morgunblaðið and Fréttablaðið, and their online counterparts, mbl.is and visir.is, picked up and covered articles about Iceland in the New York Times, which the Icelandic media often describes as a “stórblað” or “major paper,” as if to highlight the impressive feat of being featured there.
A preoccupation with being in the spotlight
Based on articles like “Icelandic Girl in the New York Times” and “Icelandic House on the New York Times Website,” one might assume that Iceland is essentially starved of international media attention, forcing it to tout and celebrate even the briefest nod in its direction. However, it turns out that Iceland received a fair amount of coverage in the New York Times from 2004 through 2013, with the words “Iceland” or “Icelandic” mentioned in roughly 3,000 articles, and the country specifically featured in 445 of them.
Of the 445 articles featuring an Icelandic person, place or entity over the ten-year period, Iceland’s dailies Morgunblaðið and Fréttablaðið (including their online versions mbl.is and visir.is) picked up 39%, or 173 of them.
Typically, as the number of articles about Iceland in the New York Times increased, so too did the number of articles picked up by the Icelandic media. However, the number of stories picked up did not increase in proportion to the number of articles that appeared in the New York Times, which suggests a threshold with regard to the number of articles that will be picked up.
Number of articles featuring Iceland in the NYT overlaid by the number of articles picked up by Iceland’s dailies.
For instance, when the New York Times publishes a great number of articles about a single Iceland related subject in a short period of time, it stands to reason that the media is not going to pick up every one of those articles. Thus, two highly newsworthy events—namely, the financial crisis and Eyjafjallajökull eruption—have likely skewed the results. If the articles featuring those subjects were excluded from October 2008 and April 2010, Iceland’s overall pickup rate for the ten-year period studied would be 45% rather than 39%, which is perhaps more representative of Iceland’s interest in basking in the glow of the international spotlight.
Also revealing is the way the Icelandic dailies tend to frame their coverage of those articles. As reflected in their headlines, more than half of the articles place explicit emphasis on the fact that the New York Times deemed Iceland or an Icelandic person, place or entity worthy of coverage.
Not only does the media seem to revel in external validation, as one might glean from headlines such as “Iceland Is a Nice and Interesting Society,” or “A Special Favorite of the New York Times,” but it also finds the attention itself newsworthy, as one can read into headlines like “Iceland Is Receiving Attention,” “Receiving Attention from North America,” “Receiving Widespread Attention Abroad,” and “Receiving Worldwide Attention.”
Is this normal for small island nations?
As Iceland’s apparent fascination with international media coverage and its need for recognition from abroad could be considered fairly normal for a small, fledgling nation, I took on an analogous study of the Maltese dailies most equivalent to Morgunblaðið and Fréttablaðið for their coverage of New York Times articles about Malta over the same ten-year period.
Although physically much closer to mainland Europe than Iceland, the island nation of Malta is home to roughly the same number of people and it too was formerly a colony, gaining its independence in 1964, twenty years after Iceland. Yet, Malta does not appear to harbour the complex emotions that Iceland has with regard to its place in the international spotlight. Despite the fact that Malta was featured much less frequently in the New York Times than Iceland, Malta’s dailies, Times of Malta and the Malta Independent, seemed to find the occurrence far less newsworthy, picking up just 8% of the articles.
Not only was the Maltese media less interested in covering New York Times articles about Malta, but it also did not seem to view an article about Malta in the New York Times as a newsworthy event in and of itself. Looking at the 15 articles in the Maltese media that cited a New York Times article about Malta, only two of headlines expressed the sentiments “We are getting attention” or “We are liked,” which are so prevalent in Icelandic coverage. In the rest of the cases, the point of these articles was not to highlight that the New York Times had featured Malta, or a Maltese person, place or entity, but rather to use the New York Times as a source for substantive news. Which arguably seems like a saner practice.
So while no one comparison is perfect, the results of my study at least suggest that Iceland’s tendency may not be true of all small island nations with past lives as colonies, that it is perhaps unique to Icelanders.
Breaking News: The World Noticed Us! The World Likes Us!
In the ten-year period studied, Iceland’s media covered New York Times articles about Iceland in 246 articles. A striking 55% of those headlines emphasized the fact that Iceland, or an Icelandic person, place or entity, was liked, disliked, or simply received attention. The remaining 46% of headlines were unclear in this regard, although in many cases, the focus of the articles shifted from reporting the news in question towards highlighting the fact that Iceland had been featured internationally.
Lapping up attention
Perhaps most interesting are the headlines that boil down to “We are getting attention,” making up 79 articles, or 32% of the Icelandic articles reporting on New York Times articles about Iceland. A number of them follow the structure: “New York Times is showing [Insert Iceland, or an Icelandic person, place, or entity] interest.” For example, on January 10, 2011, visir.is ran the headline “New York Times Shows Mamma Gogo Interest” (“New York Times sýnir Mömmu Gógó áhuga”).
The 15 most featured Iceland-related subjects in the New York Times account for 218 of the 445 articles about Iceland over the ten year period, from 2004 through 2013.
1. Financial crisis
Number of articles: 41, picked up: 39%
Number of articles: 27, picked up: 41%
Number of articles: 25, picked up: 12%
Number of articles: 19, picked up: 32%
Number of articles: 17, picked up: 53%
6. Ólafur Elíasson
Number of articles: 16, picked up: 44%
7. Bobby Fischer
Number of articles: 11, picked up: 55%
Number of articles: 9, picked up: 33%
Number of articles: 9, picked up: 11%
Number of articles: 9, picked up: 11%
Number of articles: 8. picked up: 13%
12. Sigur Rós
Number of articles: 8, picked up: 38%
Number of articles: 7, picked up: 0%
Number of articles: 6, picked up: 17%
15. Ragnar Kjartansson
Number of articles: 6, picked up: 83%
Others read “New York Times discussed [Icelandic thing, person, or place]” or “[Icelandic thing, person, or place] was discussed.” For example, on March 6, 2012, mbl.is ran a story with the headline “Ólafur Is Discussed In The NYT” (“Ólafur til umfjöllunar hjá NYT”). Although people are referred to by their first names in Iceland, the journalist’s decision to simply refer to him as Ólafur is interesting, especially given that Ólafur is the fifth most common male name in the country and there are at least four famous Ólafurs (as in the president, the handball player, the artist and the musician). Again, according to the headline, the emphasis in this story lies in the fact that the New York Times deemed an Icelandic Ólafur worthy of coverage. Ólafur’s identity is clarified in the article’s lede, but the emphasis is still on the fact that he received coverage.
In another example from August 2, 2012, Fréttablaðið published the article “Gylfi in the New York Times” (“Gylfi í New York Times”). The article begins: “Soccer player Gylfi Sigurðsson received generous coverage on the New York Times’ website yesterday. The occasion is Tottenham’s trip to New York where the team played a friendly match against the Red Bulls and was sized up for the FIFA 13 computer game, which comes out later this year.” The article continues: “Gylfi scored a fantastic goal in the game and it is described in detail. The Times journalist writes highly of Gylfi and wonders how such a small country could have so many successful soccer players despite never having made it to a big tournament.”
Sometimes the headline contains no subject at all, which makes it even clearer what is being emphasized. On January 15, 2013, for instance, mbl.is published an article with the headline: “Receiving Widespread Attention Abroad” (“Vekur athygli víða erlendis”). This headline implies that the most important part of the story is simply the fact that the world is taking note of Iceland. Others examples in this category of headline include “Lots of Interest from the Foreign Press,” (“Mikill áhugi erlendra fjölmiðla”), “Getting Attention in North America” (“Vekur athygli vestanhafs”), and “Getting Attention from the World” (“Vekur heimsathygli”). Basking in praise Another 55 articles, or 22% of the Icelandic articles reporting on New York Times coverage of Iceland, have headlines that fall into the “We are liked” category.
Often when the local media reported a positive review, the New York Times is described as a “major paper” (“stórblað”). It is not enough that a New York Times critic is reviewing an Icelandic artist or musician—the critic is referred to as a “respected” (“virtur”) critic. This is the case in an article about Kristín Ómarsdóttir that appeared in Fréttablaðið on April 17, 2012: “Kristín Praised in the New York Times” (“Kristínu hrósað í New York Times”). The article opens with the sentence: “Kristín Ómarsdóttir receives a laudatory review in the ‘major American paper’ New York Times for the English translation of her book ‘Hér’.”
In a stranger breed of the “We are liked” headline, Icelandic journalists take a fact presented in the New York Times and repost it as the headline of their story. These headlines do not tend to come across as being particularly newsworthy to an Icelandic audience, but the reader likely picks up on the fact that they are remarks made by a foreigner, which again makes them similar to the other types mentioned.
After all, why would the Icelandic media report to Icelanders, “Icelanders are Hospitable and Friendly” (“Íslendingar gestrisnir og vinalegir”)? This article, which appeared in Morgunblaðið on October 4, 2013, is based on a New York Times article entitled “Iceland’s Otherworldly Beauty.” This headline is less newsworthy than it is prideful that a New York Times journalist believes that Icelanders are friendly and hospitable.
Only two articles have headlines falling into the “We are not liked” category. One of those articles, “NY Times Critic Not Impressed” (“Gagnrýnandi NY Times Ekki Hrifinn”), which appeared in Morgunblaðið on December 12, 2012, referred to a negative review of the play “Faust: A Love Story,” directed by Gísli Örn Garðarsson and performed by troupes from Iceland’s Vesturport Theater and Reykjavik City Theater.
The other article, “American Geneticists Cast Doubt on deCODE’s Results” (“Bandarískir erfðafræðingar draga niðurstöður ÍE í efa), which appeared on mbl.is on February 9, 2004, relays criticism from experts quoted in the New York Times article before ending with a rebuttal from deCODE CEO Kári Stefánsson.
While it’s possible that Icelandic journalists do not adhere to the widely accepted “inverted pyramid” news format—wherein the headline reflects the most important part of the story—and instead prefer to summarise or highlight a specific detail, it seems remarkable that 54% of headlines placed emphasis on the sentiment “We are liked” or “We are getting attention.”
Icelanders seem to have a deep-seated preoccupation with how they are perceived by the outside world and a belief that “recognition comes from abroad.” The modern Icelandic proverb expressing this sentiment, “upphefðin kemur að utan,” can be traced back to a line in Nobel Prize-winning author Halldór Laxness’s play ‘Strompleikurinn’ (“The Chimney Play”) from 1961.However, its essence is perhaps best captured in his 1957 novel ‘Brekkukotsannáll’ (“The Fish Can Sing”), in which an Icelandic opera singer is celebrated in Reykjavík as the nation’s famous “world singer” though nobody in Iceland has actually heard him sing. They assume that he must be great, though, as he has performed all over the world.
Iceland Is In The New York Times! Again!
Given that the Icelandic media deems it newsworthy when the New York Times covers Iceland, one could be led to believe that this “stórblað” (“major paper”)—as the Icelandic media often describes it—has a newfound interest in the country. Quite to the contrary, however, the New York Times has been covering the island nation for as long as the paper has been in print.
When the New York Times published its first edition on September 18, 1851, Iceland was home to just over 60,000 people under Danish rule. It was 53 years away from being granted home rule, 67 years away from becoming a sovereign nation, and 93 years away from achieving independence from Denmark. Needless to say, it wouldn’t have been surprising to open the paper and find no mention of this far-flung colony in the North Atlantic. But in fact there was news of Iceland, and it was specifically news about its local politics.
Near the end of an article called “News From Europe”—a roundup of news from Great Britain, France, Austria, Spain, Turkey, Portugal, Bremen, Bavaria, Frankfort, Prussia, Lombardy, Tuscany, the Papal States, and Switzerland— there was a small blurb about Iceland. It read: “The Diet of Iceland was opened on the 5th of July at Reykjavik. Amongst the bills presented was one enacting that from the 15th June, 1852; foreign vessels shall be allowed to enter the port of Reykjavik without passports of the authorities of the island, and shall be treated as Danish vessels.”
The Diet it referred to was actually a more noteworthy event than the New York Times suggested. Also at this meeting, which is known as the National Assembly of 1851, Independence hero Jón Sigurðsson put forth a bill that would have given Iceland significantly more autonomy. When the Danish governor refused to discuss it and instead dissolved the Assembly, Jón and the rest of the Icelandic delegates reportedly uttered in unison the now famous words “Vér mótmælum öll” (“We all protest”). This is considered a particularly momentous event in Iceland’s independence struggle and those words have continued to serve as a national rallying call, notably resurfacing in the Pots and Pans Revolution after Iceland’s financial crisis at the end of 2008.
Since that first article, the word “Iceland” has appeared in more than 17,000 articles in the New York Times or on its website nytimes.com. While it goes without saying that not all of these articles are specifically about Iceland, which has for instance made plenty of cameo appearances as a bookend to emphasize the great range or scope of something—“from Iceland to Indonesia,” “as far afield as Iceland and São Paulo,” and “as far away as Iceland, Japan and Guam”—it’s also clear that New York Times coverage of Iceland is not a recent development.
Number of articles in the New York Times that mention the word “Iceland,” from the paper’s first issue in 1851 through 2014.
In fact, Iceland has seen regular spikes in coverage since the early 20th century, with a number of highly newsworthy events driving increased coverage, including the arrival of US troops in Iceland in 1941, the chess match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in 1972, and the Reagan-Gorbachev summit held in Reykjavík in 1986.
Based on the results of this study, it’s not hard to tell if Iceland has received an outsized amount of coverage in the New York Times, but it has at least received three time as much coverage as Malta over the ten-year period from 2004 through 2013. Yet, the Icelandic media picked up a significantly greater proportion of articles about Iceland than the Maltese media did about Malta, and was seemingly more impressed by the feat of making it into the international news, though such an achievement is hardly novel.
A Faraway and Misunderstood Island
Iceland’s insecurities as a small island nation and former colony, and its resulting preoccupation with being known and liked by the outside world, have been well documented through the years.
Iceland was one of the poorest and least developed countries in Europe until the latter half of the 20th century, a fact that was well relayed by visitors who often described in detail the squalor that they had encountered on their visits. These negative accounts did not sit well with Icelanders, as anthropologists E. Paul Durrenberger and Gísli Pálsson point out, and this in turn motivated them to correct what they perceived as misperceptions of their country.
One such attempt is Sigurður Nordal’s book Íslenzk Menning (“Icelandic Culture”), published in 1942. Nordal, an influential Icelandic scholar, explicitly wanted to write a new Crymogaea, a Latin text written in 1609 by Árngrímur Jónsson, who sought to “defend his fatherland against ignorance and deceit, to prove to the larger world that even though Iceland is ‘neither Italy nor Greece,’ it belongs to the society of Christians and not that of ‘pagan barbarians.’”
In his 41-page preface, Nordal explains that he originally intended to publish his book for a foreign audience after having lived in Denmark and encountered so many people who knew little about Iceland. He references an old Icelandic adage, “glöggt sé gests augað” (“The guest has a sharp eye”), to explain that it would have been ideal to have a foreigner write such a comprehensive text about Icelanders, but that Iceland had unfortunately received little attention from abroad and what little had been written about Iceland was often downright harmful.
While he originally aimed to inform foreigners that Iceland was a great country worthy of their attention, he also saw this book as an important text for Icelanders themselves. After all, he pointed out, it’s difficult to convince people of something that one doesn’t believe oneself. One of a number of similarly nationalistic books used for many years in classrooms, Íslenzk Menning seems to reveal Icelanders’ insecurities about being a little-known country, and their desire to prove their greatness to the world.
Iceland’s need to prove itself to the world
Two years after Íslenzk Menning was published, Icelanders achieved independence from Denmark. Some argue, however, that the independence struggle didn’t end in 1944, but that Icelanders have continued to struggle for recognition from the greater world.
This was particularly apparent in Iceland’s financial boom and subsequent bust in October 2008, and has been written about in a number of books that were published in its wake. As anthropologist Kristín Loftsdóttir points out in her essay “Vikings Invade Present-day Iceland,” the boom, or “The Manic Millennium” which began at the turn of the century, “reflects the old anxiety of Icelanders that foreigners have a misconception of them and don’t see their uniqueness or specialness.”
University of Bifröst Professor Eirikur Bergmann goes into greater depth in his book Iceland and the International Financial Crisis: Boom, Bust and Recovery (2014). “The new business elite were heroically branded outvasion Vikings (Útrásarvíkingur), referring to Iceland’s Golden Age of the settlement society in the 9th and 10th centuries, when Icelanders were still free, before falling prey to foreign oppression,” Bergmann writes. “In linking the new outvasion Vikings with this particular memory of the past, based on a collective myth created during Iceland’s struggle for independence from Denmark in the 19th century, the discourse on the economic boom was framed and explained through collective nationalistic sentiments, which spoke directly to the people’s postcolonial political identity.” Thus, he explains:
In only a few years, Icelandic businessmen had acquired the two largest and most majestic Danish downtown department stores (Magasin du Nord and Illum), the country’s second-largest airline (Sterling) and its most prestigious hotel (D’Angleterre), and their real estate companies not only held large shares of the main shopping streets but also many key government buildings. Many of these can be considered trophy investments rather than coldly calculated business deals, each acquisition perhaps a statement by the former poor colony that it had grown up and should be taken seriously on the world stage.
Even from the perspective of the former CEO of Kaupthing Bank’s UK operation, Ármann Þorvaldsson, Iceland’s financial crisis can be traced in part to Icelanders’ desire to be recognized by the greater world. In his book Frozen Assets: How I lived Iceland’s boom and bust (2009), he argues that the nation’s desire to seek fame abroad may have to do with its small population:
We are used to hearing jokes about the size of the population. One story goes that on a visit to China, ex-president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir met with the Chinese president who, upon hearing the population size, asked: “why didn’t you bring them all with you!?” Ignorance about our tiny country is also common. When shopping in a mall in Boston, my wife Thordis was asked by a woman where she had bought the shoes she was wearing. Upon [my wife] responding “in Iceland,” the puzzled shopper asked “is that on the fourth floor?” Because of these regular insults, we Icelanders feel we need to prove that we matter abroad. We even have a saying that goes “recognition comes from abroad.” The Beatle Ringo Starr came to visit Iceland for the first time in 1984. Journalists were waiting when his private jet landed in Reykjavík airport. As he was walking down the steps from his aircraft an eager reporter anxiously asked “How do you like Iceland?” Starr of course calmly pointed out that his feet hadn’t even touched Icelandic ground. The question became a humorous saying in Iceland, but the story gives a good insight into Icelanders’ yearning for approval from foreigners.
The media’s role as the nation’s cheerleader
In the Icelandic parliament’s Special Investigative Commission’s report on the financial crisis, it came to light that the media failed to report critically on the financial sector in the years leading up to the crisis. In addition, the media is said to have played a role in cheerleading Iceland’s successes abroad. “Of particular interest is how the economic expansion was interpreted in highly nationalistic terms by the media and leading politicians and became incorporated into Icelandic social discourses,” Loftsdóttir writes. “Tabloids reported glowingly on the conspicuous lifestyles of the Business Vikings (Mixa 2009) and gave regular updates on the intermingling of prominent Icelanders with international superstars (Durrenberger 1996; Pálsson 1989).”
Bergmann, too, notes the media’s role: “[…] many Viking Capitalists were focused on Copenhagen, Iceland’s old colonial capital. London was always the main hub of their adventures but acquisitions in Copenhagen were hailed in the Icelandic media – and by the Viking Capitalists themselves – as the greatest conquests.” Meanwhile, foreign critics who spoke up via the international media after Iceland’s first mini crisis in 2006 were dismissed: “The criticism directly countered our postcolonial national identity, which can explain why such words of caution were almost categorically dismissed as the ill-willed interference of foreign oppressors,” Bergmann writes. “We were living in a financial fairytale told through thick nationalistic rhetoric. The anxiety many Icelanders felt over the misrepresentation abroad after The Crash derives from the same origin.”
As anthropologist Tinna Grétarsdóttir and her artist colleagues Ásmundur Ásmundsson and Hannes Lárusson point out in their piece “Creativity and Crisis,” “One of the conclusions in the report of the Special Investigation Commission established by the Icelandic Parliament in the wake of the economic meltdown was that Icelanders should be encouraged to develop more ‘realistic, responsible, and moderate identit(ies) and to engage in critical thinking and media literacy in order to resist the hollow propaganda of marketing and branding masters.” Perhaps, then, the Icelandic media should consider the ramifications of perpetuating an image that is not based in reality.
This article is based on research that I conducted for a master’s thesis. Read it here.