Study shows bloggers and social media commenters may have biggest impact on what Iceland’s journalists say—and don’t.
Here at the Grapevine we are, admittedly, more prone to over-sharing than self-censorship (see our recent story “Mystery Of Weed-Stuffed ‘Dildo’ Solved,” and any restaurant review concluding illegal substances would have enhanced the meal). But according to Birgir Guðmundsson, associate professor of journalism at the University of Akureyri, journalists working in the country’s mainstream newsrooms are holding back or omitting information, perspectives and worthwhile investigations in pursuit of fitting a more politically correct narrative. Birgir says this narrative is reinforced via social media, where popular bloggers and commentators function as “shadow editors” of journalists. In 2011, he asked the country’s journalists if they regularly found themselves self-censoring. Forty-five percent of them responded with a “yes.”
What lead you to believe social media was having this censorship impact on Iceland’s journalists? At what point were you reading, watching, listening to Icelandic media, interacting over social media with Icelanders and thinking, ‘“The journalists seem to be holding back; the online conversations seem to be very volatile?”
Back in 2011-12, I and other journalism and media teachers at the University of Iceland participated in an international questionnaire about journalists. The idea was to sort of map out the media cultures in different countries. That international study included a question about public censorship, and then we added one in Iceland about self-censorship, which was partly due to the fact that, after the financial crash, there was an investigation by Parliament into reporting in the Icelandic media during that time, trying to analyse how something like this could happen. So one of the findings was that we had a lot of self-censorship of journalists. They had become buddies with these wealthy bankers, they took everything at face value and they were being criticised for it. So I thought, ok, what does this mean? That the Icelandic system is so oppressive that we really have no editorial independence? How do we define self-censorship and what is our experience of it?
So you sort of found that many mainstream journalists started to conform to the commentary from bloggers and on social media?
Yes, forty-five percent of the Icelandic journalists said that their self-censorship played a part in their daily routine and work conditions. Prominent and influential bloggers and figures of social media became sort of “shadow editors” on what stories the journalists would consider pursuing or the people they would talk to. These shadow editors will point to a journalist, claiming to be impartial, and say, “Well you’re always interviewing these kinds of people, like from the Social Democrats or Progressive Party.” These accusations might be true or not true, but what I’ve found is that this has an impact on who the journalists decide to ultimately talk to. Often, the journalists said in my interviews that they would think, “Ok, what’s going to happen if I bring this guy up once more? Will I be accused of being one-sided?” So in that sense, you’re seeing an influence on the news values.
Who is an example of one of these shadow editors, and how might they have influenced any of the journalists you interviewed for this study?
One journalist mentioned Egill Helgason and Illugi Jökulsson, who are sort influential personalities. Illugi is pretty left-wing, and Egill, he’s just sort of his own institution with his television programme.
I think the most interesting thing I saw was that some journalists didn’t pursue issues that went against the mainstream opinions expressed on the Internet. For example, in the case of the leak, when the Minister of the Interior [Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir] resigned last year and the press got very invested, DV especially—they got a prize for that—there were many journalists that had reservations about the case. They wondered if there were other aspects of the investigation to be looked at as well, like the criminal history of the asylum seeker, but this was against the mainstream of the discussion. Many wanted to raise questions that might be legitimate, but also controversial, and they admitted to letting them be. They saw other reports, and the conversation as it was on social media, and said, “We’ll just go with it.”
In terms of politics, it means raising questions that might be legitimate, but could leave a journalist branded as having tried to defend a certain political viewpoint—be it immigration or gender equality. Because of mainstream pressure here, if you don’t take the “correct” approach to it, and ask the “correct” questions, in order to be politically correct, you can be interpreted in many bad ways. I’m not against political correctness. But to not talk about something just because it is impolite is not right.
So some of these seem like universal pressures on journalists: the political correctness, being influenced by mainstream conversations. But I imagine in Iceland it’s polarised because it’s such a small population, in a small area. A reporter in New York probably doesn’t worry so much about Bob from Arkansas commenting, tweeting or writing critical Facebook posts about his story. But in Iceland, it’s so much closer and immediate. Do you think that has a greater affect on Iceland? On top of this, Iceland has the second-most Facebook users in the world per capita.
Yes, and in many places the media’s comment sections are making journalists think twice. The idea of reporting on something and then having a commenter say horrible things about you is part of the equation. In Iceland, someone tags your name in a comment on Facebook and all of the sudden everyone’s in on it. They can see who you are, who you know, pictures of your family.
Do you see this impact of social media users on journalists as an overall positive one or negative one?
I see it more as a negative one. I think most journalists in traditional media want to pursue the truth and that should be the main goal. Yet these social media users, many are self-proclaimed experts who have no responsibility to back up their statements, believe they have more credibility to tell the story than the journalist themselves.
So when you see a publication like DV putting a picture of the Prime Minister on the cover, with a headline meaning something like “Threatened To Harm Iceland,” and then distributing it for free to households, doesn’t it make you kind of grateful that there are people out there on the internet criticising those decisions? Are you sort of surprised that any publication in Iceland would have done that?
I am grateful and I think it’s necessary to criticise something like that. But here’s what I mean about the critics jumping to conclusions: the Prime Minister has been very difficult to get ahold of, he doesn’t give interviews. DV has distributed the paper for free several times over the last few months because they have new owners, it’s a sort of promotional tool. If the Grapevine wanted to get more readers, don’t you think it would be a good marketing tool to put the Prime Minister on the cover, the one who sort of never gives interviews?
Afterwards I thought, they [DV] are going to have a very hard time defending this, especially against these criticisms that are already pre-supposed. But it just irritates me how quickly people jump to conclusions and make generalisations.
How do you see social media transforming and altering the conversations that Icelanders have about politics, immigration, gender equality, etc.?
It’s hard to predict of course, but I imagine it will sort of normalise over time. I think you will get more civilized discussion on social media. Right now the public responds to media like they do the witty guy at the water cooler who has something sharp to say. But there’s a difference between simply calling the Prime Minister an “asshole,” and offering something greater on the matter.