the news frontier

Self-Regulation Done Right

How Scandinavia’s press councils keep the media accountable
April 24, 2012

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.

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“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.”

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?

The Swedish Press Council, which was founded in 1916, claims to be “the oldest tribunal of its kind in the world.” The Alliance of Independent Press Councils (AIPCE) shows that the press council model has spread far and wide, from Armenia to Zambia. There have also been some efforts to follow the model in the US—most notably the Minnesota News Council, which shut down last year after four decades because of a lack of funding, and the Washington News Council, which has been mediating press complaints from the public in Washington state since 1999—but these councils have not had direct support from news organizations, relying instead on foundation support and individual donors.

One press council that has become infamously embattled in recent months is the British Press Council, which was first established in 1953 and served as the inspiration for Minnesota’s system. But its predecessor in the UK, the Press Complaints System (PCC), recently announced that it will soon shut down (or “move into a transitional phase”) after heightened and sustained criticism over its mishandling of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal.

Its chairman still says he believes in the basic philosophy of self-regulation. “The problem really was that the Press Complaints Commission was being criticized for not exercising powers it never had in the first place,” PCC chairman Lord Hunt told the BBC last month. “So I recommended that we start again, with a new regulator, a press regulator, with teeth.”

The Leveson Inquiry has been probing possible wrongdoing at News Corporation for five months now, and both Rupert Murdoch and his son James are testifying again this week. When the inquiry began last fall, investigative reporter Nick Davies—whose work for The Guardian was instrumental in uncovering the phone-hacking story—testified that the scandal had forced him to change his previous views about self-regulation. He argued that the failings of the PCC in this case revealed the shortcomings of the entire system. “I do not trust this industry to regulate itself,” said Davies. “I love reporting, I want it to be free. We’re kidding ourselves if we think it would work.”

When asked about Davies’ comments, the PCC’s Scandinavian counterparts’ responses were pragmatic. Jytte Scharling, who is both the president of the Danish press council Pressenaevnet and a Supreme Court judge, pointed out that, in Denmark, such intrusions of privacy would never be handled by the council; rather, that kind of matter would go straight to the courts and stay there. The chairman of the Finnish council, Risto Uimonen, wrote a blog post in which he took issue with critics of the PCC and the self-regulatory system. By those critics’ same logic, Uimonen asked, should we declare the legal system a failure because, despite its existence, crimes continue to be committed?

His council secretary agreed. “Phone hacking is a crime, and there is no way an organization like ours could prevent it,” Porra wrote in an e-mail. “It is our job to keep both the journalists and the public informed about good practices, but if journalists want to commit crimes, I guess it would be difficult to prevent it with any kind of regulation.”

Porra conceded that every system of regulation has its weaknesses, but argued that voluntary self-regulation was preferable to the alternative, especially with the challenges the news industry is facing today. Whether the alternative would be a lack of regulation or a state-run regulator, she believed self-regulation is the best kind of system. She wrote, “There are all kinds of challenges right now in the media business, and it’s essential that the council is aware of their possible effects on ethics—and takes stances, when needed.”

It took a few months and several meetings of the Norwegian Press Complaints Commission, but all of the many complaints about press coverage of the July 22nd massacre have now been addressed. The council found that Dagbladet had not breached the journalistic code of ethics with its frequent coverage of Anders Behring Breivik on its front page, as the universal news value of the story merited that frequency. Likewise, the council decided that Verdens Gang did not breach the code by printing photographs of Breivik’s reenactment of his crimes, noting that the paper showed sensitivity to survivors by placing the most disturbing photos on its inside pages, rather than its front cover. The newspapers that printed the photograph of the complainant’s wife who was killed in the Oslo city bombing, however, were found to have shown a lack of restraint. At the moment that the editors printed the photograph, they did not know whether or not the woman’s family was aware of her death (even though, as it turned out, they were), and so that was a breach of Norway’s code for ethical journalism.

As Breivik’s trial began last week, journalists in Norway must have had these and other similar complaints in mind as they determined how to cover the largest court case in the country’s peacetime history with, both thoroughly and compassionately. One daily tabloid, taking its cue from the U.K.’s Guardian, found a simple but ingenious solution to the problem of over-saturation of the painful story. Showing sensitivity to the survivors of the July 22nd attacks—as well as to any number of traumatized Norwegians who feel they have seen enough of Breivik’s face—Dagbladet was the first to introduce a button offering readers a “Breivik-free” version of the daily news.

Correction (04/25/12): This story initially reported that the Norwegian-language name for the Norwegian Press Complaints Commission is Norsk Presseforbund. In fact, the organization is called Pressens Faglige Utvalg. The relevant sentence has been corrected. CJR regrets the error.

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner