When right-wing militant Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in and around bucolic Oslo last July, the story dominated the press in Norway for months. For many of the survivors, and for loved ones of those who did not survive, this news coverage was understandably hard to bear.
Some Norwegians thought a few papers went too far—that newsrooms disregarded the feelings of those affected by the tragedy in favor of sensational headlines and cover pages that would be sure to succeed on the newsstand. One survivor of the attacks objected to the frequency with which a daily tabloid, Dagbladet, featured Breivik’s photograph on its front page in the following weeks. Three other survivors, who escaped from Utøya by swimming away as Breivik shot at them, said they were re-traumatized by a series of Verdens Gang photographs of Breivik’s reconstruction of his crimes for the Oslo police. The husband of a woman who was killed when Breivik’s bomb hit a government building in the city center condemned the newspapers Dagsavisen and Stavanger Aftenblads for printing a photograph of the scene the day after the attack in which his wife could be seen among the rubble.
All of these are particularly poignant examples of complaints made in 2011 to the Norwegian Press Complaints Commission, a regulatory organization formed by the press, for the press. The group,
Norsk Presseforbund Pressens Faglige Utvalg (PFU)*, is an independent tribunal that meets regularly to consider complaints from the public against all types of domestic news media: online, print, TV, and radio. It is made up of seven members serving two-year terms: two journalists chosen by the national journalists’ union; two editors chosen by the editors’ professional association; and three qualified “lay members” from the public. The council meets once a month to make its rulings, which are all based on The Norwegian Code of Ethics, first adopted by member press organizations in 1936 and later also applied to radio and television news broadcasters in 1994.
Denmark, Finland, and Sweden all have similar press councils, with a few varying details. For instance, Pressens Opinionsnämnd, the Swedish system, has one ombudsman at its head, and it only deals with the print media, while complaints against broadcast TV or radio news go to a separate state-run commission. But the systems function in otherwise similar ways. Any member of the public may submit a complaint, free of charge; administrative fees are paid annually by the member organizations. The news outlets voluntarily submit themselves to the councils’ judgments because it shows their audience that they are responsible, accountable, and fair.
“This is like the what do you call it in America?” asks Kjell Nyhuus, one of PFU’s secretaries. “The fox that watches the henhouse. But it is a very good fox! A very serious fox.”
The complaint-making process is pretty straightforward. The complainant writes a letter to the council, citing the offending article or broadcast and explaining why he or she thinks it violates the code of journalistic ethics published on the council’s website. The council sends the complaint to the editor of the news outlet, who can then either end the process by apologizing, or continue the process with a defense. If the process continues, it goes back to the complainant, who can respond again. Then it goes to the council. After the council’s monthly deliberation, if the news outlet has been found to have breached the code of conduct, they have to publicize the ruling as soon as possible. Newspapers print a small notice, and radio and television broadcasters read a short message on air.
“The radio and television people say that 50 seconds is like an eternity,” says Nyhuus. “So they really feel it! They don’t do this with great happiness.”
The most common types of complaints involve incorrect information in a news story; subjects of news pieces who say the journalist did not give them the right to reply to criticism against them; and subjects who feel that a news story has breached their privacy. Crime reporting frequently elicits these types of complaints, says Kersti Söderberg, deputy press ombudsman of the Swedish press council. Scandinavian codes of ethics have very strict privacy protections for the subjects of these types of stories.
“The suspect might for instance think that he has been pointed out by the press on a too early stage of the process,” Söderberg writes via e-mail. “Or the victim might have been identified with sensitive details.”