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.”
There are limitations to what the press councils will handle. Only someone who is directly related to the story in question can make a complaint. So a survivor of the terror attacks in Norway could complain about the news coverage of it, for instance, but an average reader who found the coverage distasteful or excessive wouldn’t have grounds for complaint. Typically, no more than a few months can have elapsed between publication or broadcast and a complaint. The councils can only rule on news published domestically, by a member organization; so the Norwegian press council had to dismiss the many complaints they received about a Daily Beast piece on the July 22nd bombing attacks, because although its author is Norwegian, the website is not.
By design, the press council system is kept separate from the judicial system. (Denmark’s council was originally mandated by a law, and Finland’s council is partially funded by the Ministry of Justice, but all operations are independent of the government). When the complaint looks to involve a legal matter, the councils will refer it to the courts, of course. But from the perspective of the complainant, it’s often preferable to try the press council before hiring a lawyer, etcetera; as representatives of all four countries’ councils happily described, the self-regulatory systems aim to be “free, fast, and fair.”
As the news industry has adapted to digital technology, the press councils have adapted, too. Finland’s Council for Mass Media, Julkisen Sanan Neuvosto, recently amended the journalistic code of ethics to address the proper monitoring of user-generated comments. Norway’s council now broadcasts a portion of each monthly meeting in a live online stream on the industry website Journalisten. And several of the council secretaries say that they’ve seen a noticeable increase in complaints coming in just in the past few years. They attribute that trend, in part, to a rise in click-bait headlines and the kinds of hasty errors caused by competitive online publishing.
In all, the press councils of Norway, Finland, and Sweden receive about 300 complaints a year; Denmark’s gets about 100. (The separate Swedish Broadcasting Commission, which regulates TV and radio alone, gets up to 800 complaints a year.) Of these, only a small portion will result in a formal criticism and the rest will be dismissed. Representatives from all of the councils were quick to say, though, that every complainant will get a reply and an explanation of the outcome, whether or not the complaint goes through.
“You always get some kind of reply,” says Nina Porra, council secretary at Finland’s organization. “Somebody takes you seriously. And for many people, that seems to be very, very important.”
By all accounts the Scandinavian press council model is healthy, effective, and held in high regard. But would the same model work elsewhere—for instance, in less centralized, more diverse media landscapes?