21 Things I Learned And Two That I Regret
A 10 month stay at Constructive Institute has raised my awareness of almost everything. Here’s some of what I take with me home.
I learned that journalism today does not always depict the true state of the world and that its negativity bias is the key point of attack.
I learned that if you are taken hostage by, say, Islamic State, you need to fix your attention on daily routines and get to know fellow inmates in order not to go nuts.
I learned the difference between causation and correlation.
I learned that one of the fastest ways to rebuild trust in journalism is by making it transparent.
I learned what 11 other bright and funny fellows thought of journalism, politics and life as a whole, and I learned how valuable such inputs and these people can become.
I learned that my kids (12, 10 and 5) ended up profiting a lot from a year as exchange students in Eastern Jutland, which is far enough away from Copenhagen for them (or us) to exit comfort zones.
I learned that if you have two potatoes and your neighbour has two chicken and you really want a chicken and he really wants a potato and you exchange one chicken for one potato – then you end up with something worth more than what you had. It’s a beautiful thought and you can win the Nobel prize in economics if you can sort of expand and explain that theory a little.
I learned to be fair.
I learned that we at Constructive Institute should take care not to depict the current state of journalism in sad black and white while asking everyone else to use colours.
I learned that freedom of speech is not freedom of reach. You are entitled to your thoughts but not necessarily to have them amplified.
I learned that it’s okay to fall asleep when you prepare for class because that happens to everyone now and then. And it’s okay to blame it on the inaccessibility of academic texts.
I learned that fake news was not created by the internet. But the scale of it was.
I learned our country must be strong // that it’s always right and never wrong // our leaders are the finest men // we elect them again and again
I learned that politics often is about blame avoidance and that’s what’s keeping us from really liking and trusting politicians.
I learned that you can’t always trust surveys on trust that tell you that trust all of a sudden goes up or down. It’s easy to confuse disagreeing with distrusting politicians and many big polls don’t really care about this distinction.
I learned that the power and influence of the Danish parliament is decreasing, sadly, while the power and influence of the government is increasing, pretty unstoppably.
I learned to love a story’s nuances even though they may blur the angle
I learned that 80 percent of all legislation is adopted by 80 percent of all parties in Parliament and that this sign of unity and accord is an underreported story.
I learned that the number of lawsuits against independent media from big companies under journalistic fire is increasing rapidly.
I learned that reporting on solutions may be the way forward for journalism but that you should also be careful as to who gets to pick and assess these solutions.
I learned that you have to close your presentation with something powerful. Like the one that ended an American editor’s talk on investigative reporting and fake news: “The truth needs reinforcements and I’m here to recruit.”
I regret not having tried to do a book on trust. I did a podcast, which was fun and interesting, but I guess I also had the chance to put everything down in writing, illustrations, characters, graphs, chapters, footnotes and maybe I would have hit a good balance between academic, journalistic and popular angles.
I regret that a 10 month leave from your job is not for everyone in Denmark regardless of your occupation. Journalists often succeed in convincing the world that we are important. But teachers, pedagogues and doctors would be cool to invest in and develop too.
We Can do Better
They all look really interested although a bit polite. I know from previous conversations that my young classmates are not really that interested in journalism.
We are in a small classroom at the Political Science Department at the beautiful yellow brick Aarhus University.
As part of my Fellowship at Constructive Institute I can follow lectures at the University, and in the Fall of 2019 I attend a course on how the Government can influence the public to make better choices in health, wealth and other matters.
I have agreed to give a presentation on what Constructive Journalism is and why I think it is important. I have made a few presentations before and I expect to see a reaction, when I go through the slides showing that journalism today in many areas give a false perception of the world because it is overly negative.
Almost as on cue I can see a few heads nodding in agreement, smiling as I run through the surveys showing that the News today can create apathy and lead to News avoidance. They recognize the feeling.
These young people are smart, and they are part of the generation that faces serious challenges in the years to come with climate change and polarization between groups of people. Challenges where a strong democracy is essential and democracy is not a given; it needs to be nurtured and checked. As a result a strong, free, critical press is essential, a press that the public will read, listen to and trust, otherwise it is pointless.
My presentation in the classroom introduces the students to what we think Constructive Journalism should be and what is should offer to the public. Constructive Journalism is always critical at its core with a focus on facts, nuances, perspective. It points to possible solutions that enable the people to act and to see a way forward that protects democracy, in short a more balanced journalism.
After the presentation I talk to a few students that seem almost relieved that journalist are actually willing to work on a journalism that offers more.
I have worked with journalism for more than 25 years often with a critical and investigative approach and I am surprised, that I don´t fully understand, how my journalism affects people and what the citizens of Denmark need from us.
Good Journalism is important. I am often confronted by other journalists that believe they already do, what we suggest. Some do but I think that many don´t.
I have had the good luck to spend 10 months learning about the ideas behind Constructive Journalism, following courses at the University and meeting dozens of interesting and insightful people. It shouldn´t be a surprise but we can all learn more and journalism hasn´t really changes in the 25 years I have worked with it. So maybe it is about time.
“Don’t pity us!” He says, I am having coffee and pastry with a craftsman in a small town on the coast of Jutland. He is quite clear about what he doesn´t want from the journalists.
I enjoy talking to one of our “customers”. Normally I am employed at a news department at DR in Aarhus. We have a special focus on people and areas outside the big cities.
A focus I have also had at my Fellowship. I want to learn more about the challenges in the outskirts of Denmark.
The latest couple of General Elections have, I think, surprised a lot of people. The movements of the electorates to form what was known as the yellow Denmark in 2015 and the emergence of new parties on the right in 2019. It makes me wonder if there are groups of the public, that we, the press, are not sufficiently in contact with, stories that are not being told.
Looking outside Denmark there seems to be a divide between people. This divide is there even in countries that Denmark compares to; there is Brexit in Great Britain, yellow wests in France and the polarization in the US that Donald Trump represents.
There are many reasons for these divides, I am sure, but I also believe that the Press plays a part. If you are a journalist and reading this on the website of the Constructive Institute, I am guessing that you are part of the middleclass, with a house, a job and savings for retirement.
Lots of people in Denmark don´t have this security and maybe we don´t listen enough to them. I know from my own work that we enjoy telling stories from our lives and telling them to likeminded people.
Denmark is a small and fairly homogeneous country, but we still need to ensure the cohesion among people, so when we talk about job security, savings and increase in prices of homes, we should be aware that this is not a story everyone can relate to.
I have had a lot of inspiration on this through University courses and talks during my 10 month Fellowship. There is no one way to do it better, but awareness is a start if we want to tell stories from another perspective than our own. My luck is that more people at my job are aware that we need to do better. When I return to work, I, along with a colleague, have been assigned to have a special focus on and work with stories from the outskirts of Denmark and of course in a Constructive way – because it makes sense.
Being a Fellow
I don’t often ride in taxis. Being a journalist, this is the classic, almost cliché way of finding out how ‘The People’ feel about a certain topic. I do, however, frequently use the ride-sharing app GoMore where I’ll spend a couple of hours with three members of ‘The People’. First off comes the introduction where I don’t always succeed in explaining what it means to be a fellow at Constructive Institute. But when I get to the part about wanting to make journalism more forward looking and nuanced and less focused on conflict, the reaction is always positive and enthusiastic.
At the Institute I have been introduced to the concept of news avoiders, people who intentionally avoid following the news. I realize that I actually know quite a few news avoiders; I’ve just never given their motivations much thought. These motivations, surveys show, typically include feeling your mood being ruined and being left powerless by the stories in the media.
Journalists, myself included, can easily find arguments for highlighting and exposing disagreement, conflict and malfunctions. But if the people who are meant to be reading, watching and listening to our stories have had enough of this, I think we need to listen.
As a fellow I have done a lot of listening, primarily to university professors and media bosses. Even though the great majority of these people have had a positive inclination towards constructive journalism, we have also had guests who have been less than sure that it is the right way to go for the media. A few have even been invited because of their skepticism. In these cases, I have found our differences to be rooted in different views on democracy and journalism’s role in it. And even though I disagree, I respect the viewpoint saying that journalism should solely focus on unveiling crooks, corruption and wrongdoing. But I strongly believe we need to do more.
At my normal workplace, Altinget, we do try to do more. To create understanding of the political process, to highlight the nuances and focus on the substance. During my time as a fellow, I have come to appreciate that much of what the Institute is teaching and preaching is already the reality I came from. It makes me proud to be a part of Altinget and it makes me less nervous about returning to work with the goal of putting the constructive approaches to practical use. I believe I will be able to help put into words what we are doing when we are at our best. Much like the example of news avoiders, conceptualizing and building a language for something that already exists can create a better understanding and, in the case of constructive journalism at Altinget, hopefully help grow it.
Then came corona. For someone with ten months dedicated to looking at the media from the outside it served as a photographic developer, highlighting and enhancing dynamics and patterns already in place. But it also brought changes to journalism, especially in the first couple of months. The traditional method of finding someone to criticize people in power and the choices they make stopped working when everyone rallied around the flag. The space this left open was filled with medical doctors, virologists, epidemiologists and the likes who popped up everywhere. The phones were ringing like never before in the hallways of medical science at every university and the Danes were soon on a first name basis with at least a handful of scientific civil servants and experts.
Along with another fellow, Tine Rud Seerup, I decided to explore how the initial months of the pandemic looked and felt from the perspective of these experts. We ended up interviewing each a handful of professors, asking what they thought of the media coverage in general, how they saw their own role and responsibility in it and what they had learned from the crisis in relation to the media.
More or less unanimously the experts were pleased and impressed with the general coverage of the corona crisis. I find this interesting in light of how different the journalism was at this point in time compared to normal. Part of the positive assessment from the experts might be explained by the fact that people like themselves got a lot more airtime than what they are used to.
Apart from this general praise, we discovered a number of interesting aspects of the role of a health expert. Most surprisingly to me was how almost everyone we interviewed mentioned a feeling of engaging in a cooperation when being in contact with journalists. They see it as a common mission to get information across to the audience and felt this dynamic as stronger in a number of ways when the virus broke out. Some also spoke of a shared responsibility to not blow things out of proportion and incite unnecessary fear in the public.
This to me is very soothing but it also leads to questions of when journalists and experts get too close to one another. It must never be so that necessary critical questions are not asked, especially in a scenario where professors play such a large role in the public conversation as was the case early in the pandemic. Most of our experts did not seem to be met with very many questions in regards to what they based their expert statements on which has left me feeling like I personally need to do a better job at this when I return to my desk.
I’d like to highlight a final point from our interviews concerning journalist’s ability to understand the science. Even though some said it was only natural, the professors were generally not impressed with the way the average journalist handled the numbers, charts and scientific reports on the corona virus. To me this is worrying and there is a huge challenge in figuring out how better to prepare reporters to work on complicated scientific material. I’m afraid there are not easy solutions to be found here.
None the less I feel our findings have given me a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities in scientific reporting in general and of the specific difficulties in play in covering the health sector.
As with much of constructive journalism, a good starting point is returning to classical journalistic virtues of taking time to research, making sure to see things with both eyes and keeping an open mind. I feel ready and excited to soon be doing this back out in the real world.
Constructive Why? Because it Matters.
The very first day in the lounge I remember being busy. Busy trying to decode who this bunch of new faces were. I recalled a former fellow telling me, that in a year from now these strangers will have become close friends. 11 fellows. 12 including myself. Only one whom I knew.
Impatiently I was trying to skip the part of getting-to-know-each other as I tried to interpret who each was. One thing I knew. We had to be here for the same reason: Figuring out how to do better journalism.
I’ve spent most of my career as a journalist at the Danish Broadcasting Corporation. A big house. Lots of opportunities. But I never had an opportunity like his before. I gave myself a promise: when you zoom back on this year, you’ve made the most of it.
The first days were a bit blurry. It seems like forever ago, that we stood in the rainbow on top of the museum Aros singing Somewhere over the rainbow, not knowing what this year would bring. I just knew I had got the chance to look into an area of great interest to me. The climate. Ten month to explore how to report on climate changes constructively. As I often cover stories from rural part of the country, I wanted to learn more about how to engage audience on this huge global issue by getting it down to a local scale.
During the first couple of weeks we started at our courses. I joined one on Climate through the history of the earth at Geoscience. I was so eager to understand all about the complexity of the climate issues. My new book had arrived. Earth’s Climate: Past and Future by W. Ruddiman. I sat down in the University’s amazing reading room thinking I would spend the entire day reading all 70 pages for the first class. It took me two hours to read through the first eight pages. My tv-reporter brain had a hard time understanding why it had to be written this complicated language, spending endless number of pages to get to the point. The quick answer was obvious: because it is complicated. And scientists are not forced to simplify the finding into a two minutes news story.
At times I really longed for a more concrete approach to things like I was used to. And at times I felt like sticking my head in the sand, like when the first task was to tell your own personal narrative in front of your (not yet) new best friends. Instead of telling the story about somebody else, I was the story, reflecting on my own life, choices and why I became a journalist. A simple question but somehow the answer needed to be refreshed.
Repetitions increases the understanding, a climate scientist said, when I tried to figure out how to do more constructive climate reporting. Don’t be afraid to tell the facts over and over again. That’s how we remember. During the fall I was repeatedly reminded of why I wanted to become a journalist. Our talks about doing good for society woke up the passion for my profession. We had ongoing discussions about good journalism, bad journalism, biased journalism, investigative journalism. And how, why and when to do constructive journalism.
Other than that we had inspiring guest-talks and time to sit in the couch-corner with a book of interest.
My handpicked stack of books grew. A luxury I had forgotten to give myself for quite some time, thinking I would never get the time to read it. The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace Wells became my new horror fix, Rosling’s Factfulness a realitycheck, Ruddimans complex climate bible my reminder of talking to as many scientists as possible and Saxo’s book app played every minute I had alone in my car. I felt the eager to understand more in order to be able to nuance my journalism.
In January the first of the planned study trips took us to San Francisco. Looking through notes and pictures I can’t believe the list of interesting people we met. My heart still skips a beat when thinking of the moment where we met with the fellows from Stanford University’s journalistic fellowship program. At room filled with journalists from all over the world wanting to make changes.
Spring came full of big expectations. I had plans. We had plans. Plans for our projects, study trips, journalistic discussions. Then Corona came and closed a whole lot of doors.
All of the sudden we had to find new ways of meeting. We basically Zoomed through the lockdown.
For my project it opened new possibilities. Me and my fellow colleague, Katja Boxberg, wanted to do a workshop bridging the gap between climate science and climate journalism and discuss how to do more constructive climate reporting. And since we were all stuck at home, we decided on doing it virtual. That made it possible to do a constructive climate reporting workshop with attendees from all the Nordic countries.
Being a fellow has provided access to academic and scientific insights. Scientists and journalist have a lot in common in many ways. Both seek to provide facts, nuances and knowledge that can be shared with the society. But we also live in a time of great challenges. Where truth and fact are under pressure. For me it was interesting to dive into what we can learn from each other if we start listen to each other a whole lot more. For example we found out that scientists wish for more transparency on how they are part of the story and what kind of story, often fearing that nuances get oversimplified in media.
We learnt that both scientists and journalists can spend much more time talking to each other. That we strive for the same things, getting the knowledge out to the public as it will only have an impact if others hear about it.
When talking about how to do constructive climate reporting it was pointed out that climate journalism is not what we should be discussing. But how to put in into every beat. Whether you cover economy, health or migration there is a climate angle to be found.
I will bring that reflection with me going back to my workplace. With my fellow colleague Mette Aaby I am going back to a new desk where we focus on stories from the rural parts of Denmark. Stories striving to be constructive. Because it matters. It matters to look to potential solutions in order to bring hope. It matters to paint a true picture so people can find themselves truly pictured in the stories we make. It matters to strive to bridge gaps and not help build walls.
Ten months have gone. There are now ten well-known faces. The one I knew I know even better now.
I feel a change. I hope it will show. I think I’ll start by asking in a different way. Why is this story important? To whom is it important?
Why? Because it matters.
I’ve been a news agency journalist with Australian Associated Press for nearly 30 years. Breaking news, making fast decisions and moving on to the next story is what I do best.
So when my editor-in-chief Tony Gilles proposed sending me to Denmark for four months to immerse myself in something called constructive journalism I was bemused, but intrigued. What was a breaking news journalist going to get from being introspective, after all!
At the very least, I’d get to take a break from what I have been doing non-stop for 30 years.
And I would get to live briefly in lovely Denmark, which, after all, has a very strong connection with Australia in Tasmanian-born Crown Princess Mary. And Lego. (Despite growing up in sub-tropical Queensland, I had no issue with the Danish climate – just a little more sunshine would have been great.)
The four months I spent on the fellowship (September to December) turned out to be more than just a nice little break from my job. It became an opportunity to really immerse myself in thinking and discussing all forms of journalism with others in my field and discover that I wasn’t alone in thinking we could do things better.
It was also a challenge in many ways. I really wanted to learn some of the language but it was just too different to English to do in a short period of time. But seeing how well Danes speak English was amazing. Going to classes with smart young things at Aarhus University again was also a challenge. It’s been more than 30 years since I was at uni. Remembering how to read academic texts (which are written in a way opposite to how most journalists write!), contributing to discussions, and exchanging ideas was daunting, but fun and, again, an amazing opportunity.
The best part was learning from my fellow fellows. They were all accomplished journalists, from different backgrounds, with different focuses, and different skills. But all with the same passion to provide their diverse audiences with the best journalism possible, and all with great ideas about how to do that.
The mix of speakers to the Lounge – whether inspiring, challenging or just strange – really added to the experience. I actually enjoyed them all.
This discussion of ideas, how we as journalists have traditionally approached stories, how readers of those stories have perceived what they read, and how we view how other journalists have presented stories has helped focus how I can bring change at AAP.
I have stayed at AAP for so long because its mission fits my mission. But, as Tony said when he suggested the fellowship, we can do more as a news agency.* And the fellowship has given me that inspiration.
Journalists are expected to hold politicians and other authorities to account, point out the problems in society, and make sure the citizens knew what was happening – including crime and disasters, and world events.
But shouldn’t we also try to show a way out? Point out when things are working, instead of focusing on the worst version of the facts?
There has been ample opportunity in 2020 to focus on the horror, fear and struggles of the stories that have dominated the headlines – Australia’s summer bushfire disaster; the COVID-19 pandemic with mass deaths around the world; a resultant economic crisis plunging many countries into recession and massive job losses; worldwide race protests triggered by the death of a black man while he was being arrested in Minneapolis; and now the history wars.
But there has also been ample opportunity to look at the other side of those stories – how Australians fought the bushfires, survived and are now rebuilding; how countries like Australia and New Zealand escaped the worst of COVID-19 (just 102 have died in Australia, while New Zealand now has no active cases); how governments, businesses and individuals are confronting the challenge of an economic crisis with innovation and new ideas, resilience, tenacity and changing attitudes; how we can address the scourge of racism, while addressing the problems of history without erasing it.
The irony of a news year where so many people have been seeking proper information is that the media is going through its own make-or-break crisis.
The central mission of a news agency is to produce breaking news without bias, spin or an agenda; with context and background; for use by a diverse client base.
Constructive journalism aims to ask critical questions about the challenges that face our society and its people, and to inspire solutions.
So how does constructive journalism work with a fast-moving news agency?
In many ways, it’s simple. It’s about the story selection, the angle, the language, the questions asked, and the sources, data and background used.
At AAP, we try to avoid overdramatising the stories we tell, or blindly follow how organisations (not just media groups, but politicians, authorities, companies, public relations etc) tell their stories.
In other ways, it’s more complicated. We’re not expected to go beyond the initial story, or investigate it further. But we can give it a go.
It is important to note that constructive journalism is NOT about replacing breaking news, reporting of news of the day, or investigative journalism. They are all needed to inform our society. Constructive journalism asks the question: what next?
For me, constructive journalism is NOT about singling out a story to produce it “constructively” and label it so. It’s about factoring in the principles and applying it to all stories on the file. This applies, in particular, to political and crime/terror stories, where our primal journalistic response is to focus on the conflict, drama or outrage, rather than the substance of the issue or going beyond the dramatic.
BUT we can and should create unique and constructive stories on key issues affecting and interesting Australians.
We are not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but improving the bath. We can hold onto our journalistic methods of holding authorities to account, of reporting critically on the issues that need to be addressed all without confecting outrage or buying into someone else’s spin.
And if authorities won’t answer the questions, we can take another approach to addressing the story. We can also take the next step in exploring what else can be done about the situation.
I strongly believe that if this is to work and be effective it needs to be across the wire – not individual stories. And it needs to include our approach to visuals, including images.
A clear story of what we are doing and why needs to be communicated both to our staff and subscribers.
As a news agency, with broad reach, we have the opportunity to influence the news agenda and we should embrace and honour that with an approach that includes a “constructive” view.
* (As many know, the future of AAP was put into doubt in early March but a version will live on. I don’t know yet if I will be part of that, but whatever happens next, I will continue this idea that we should be pursuing the best version of the truth.)
Monday Morning – You Sure Look Fine
What a ride it’s been. There’s a lot. But maybe the biggest “ah, that’s really good” sensation I got these past 10 months was on a day that started pretty crappy. Ulrik and Orla – bless them for their energy, insane networking capabilities and such – had planned a trip to Copenhagen (three hours from the institute. Three! Plus parking!) with the first meeting early in the morning, which meant I needed to get two cranky kids up before dawn and reluctantly send them on their way before normal hours, so I could spend my Monday morning at a niche media literally called ‘Mandag Morgen’.
Mandag Morgen specialize in stories about the knots and bolts of governing, society and business, meaning a lot of numbers. Not my thing. But then they explained a new project of theirs, inviting readers to editorial meetings about specific subjects, based on the idea that dedicated readers have a perspective that might be valuable for the stories they wanted to tell. Basically, if the task ahead was to write about municipality budgets, they’d open up for people who felt they had an insight, or interest, in this to help them along. Both because they’d get the complications – the backbone of many a journalistic story – but also because they’d get a view on possible solutions or inspiration on how to do stuff differently.
The concept was simple, as it was brilliant (and borrowed, from the British frontrunners at Tortoise Media). It was also typical for my time at Constructive Institute. Not the early hours, that is – meeting hours was generally much more pleasant. But the sense that I – again and again – was reminded of the value of stepping back and looking at how we do journalism. These past 10 months has been a positive bombardment on how to view journalism in today’s society and my own role within it. It has offered input on how to get more nuances, solutions, hope and perspective into stories.
I’ve had my eyes re-opened to the impact of what I practice every day I go to work – stuff that I had forgotten or that had become secondary to trying to keep a deadline and attempt to try to decipher what’s inside the head of the daily editor.
All the while having the time of my life. I’ve laughed so much and so often. I’ve looked forward to seeing my colleagues every morning. I’ve learned that I dare do more than I thought. And the line up of speakers and guests has been impressive. Okay, Corona took away some of the expected highlights in the spring and occasionally I (literally) zoomed out of the meetings.
Anyway, the whole Monday morning thing at ‘Mandag Morgen’ – that by now had gotten more interesting than expected – reminded me of a story I did for TV 2 back in 2015. Amid the refugee surge through Europe a family of four from Syria had walked up to a colleague of mine in Kolding and asked for help to seek asylum in Denmark. Nour and Mohammed Tahan had left war torn Syria with their two kids, 7-year old Sema and 6-year old Mahmoud, and taken the journey with thousands of other refugees to start a new life in a new country. For the next day and a half, I followed them as they talked to police, met up with friends from back home for the first time in months and settled in their temporary home.
That was the story I did back then. Now imagine there’s an integration reform under way and bosses are beating the drum: “we need stories about this!’ We all know how the traditional process would be, but now I’m thinking: how awesome would it be today, five years later, to invite the Tahans – and others who are trying to start a life in Denmark – to an editorial brainstorm on stories about integration. What worked for you? what didn’t? what have you heard? what have you seen? who knows about this that we could talk to? Then we add some case workers who have their hands deep in this and all of a sudden we as reporters get a chance to build our angles on a much more grounded and substantiated base than had we gone down the normal path.
Is it time consuming and complicated? Sure. But would we get other stories down the road? Better stories? I think so. I hope so. After ten months on Constructive Institute I feel obliged to.
Love, Luxury and Language. That is my Ten Months’ Fellowship in Just Three Words.
Love. Because I am part of the amazing world of journalism. The job as a news editor with a news agency can sometimes feel a bit like the job of a traffic cop. There is an endless stream of pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, truckers, pilots, train drivers, sailors and even the odd submarine captain competing for my attention and direction. It can be fun. And it is at times a huge responsibility. A daunting task. But it is also constantly busy and demanding to the extent that I can sometimes lose sight of the awesomeness of it all. And somehow forget how much I actually love my profession. I am not one of those who got into journalism thinking that I would topple prime ministers or singlehandedly pull the rug from under the crooks in society. During my years as a foreign correspondent, I have reported on numerous world changing and countless just plain interesting events. And as a news editor, I am in charge of Ritzau’s reporting on big and small. And that is the essence of what I love. This ability to step into any story of importance to our shared society, sift through the information, figure out what matters, connect the dots, gain a level of understanding – and then communicate it in a form that makes others understand. This feeling that anything can be relevant, and that everything can be interesting. Knowing that my job is a perfect excuse to be curious and a license to ask all sorts of questions. It is pretty basic and at the heart of the role of free media: I want to pass on the relevant information that gives citizens the tools they need to play their part in a democratic society. That is what I love about being a journalist. Right now I feel that I have rediscovered that love and found new energy to go back to reporting.
Luxury. Because that is what student life is. To gain access to the immense ressources of a university. To spend time with smart colleagues in a relaxed atmosphere. To lean back to talk and think about why we do the things we do the way we do them – and to navel gaze and wonder whether we are doing it right. To think about society and the role we as journalists and media play. We are very good performers and doers. We pretty much know how to do things, and we know how to do them fast. And we do our best to react to the ever changing media environment with the constant challenges from social media, big tech, the idea that news is free, people turning off news and as yet unknown new uses of AI. But even though we talk about stories a lot, we don’t often talk about journalism as such – not in the newsroom, and not with our bosses. We just do it. We certainly don’t talk to prime ministers, EU commissioners, elected officials, public servants, corporate bosses and academics – our sources and targets – about it. And when non journalists at dinner parties attack us for being too negative or criticize us for painting a skewed picture of the world, we defend ourselves by saying that is the role of the press. True that. But having had the chance to step into a closed room to have these conversations with – among others – top media people like the US managing editor of the Financial Times, key actors in society like EU commissioner Margrethe Vestager and corporate giants like SnapChat founder Evan Spiegel is indeed a luxury. It feeds the thoughts about where and how we should play our part in society. Precisely because it is our job to hold people in power to account, journalists have a tendency to think we are infallible in our ivory towers. As one of our guest speakers – a very high ranking politician – said: Journalists should stop worrying: Am I critical enough. And we shouldn’t report stories in such a way that we force our readers to take sides between the parrot sitting on every politician’s shoulder and the journalist as a terrier calling out all the mistakes and problems. We can and must do better. Keep our eye on the ball and focus on equipping people to make up their own minds on the issues. It has indeed been a luxury to have been able to step out of the newsroom and into a room where we have had time and space to talk, reflect, discuss, express doubt and think.
Language. Because I have always felt the importance of nuances and proper choice of words in reporting. To me, constructive journalism is to a large extent really just good, decent reporting. But we easily operate from a common understanding that we deliver just that – even when we don’t. I remember a guest lecturer at my very first year in journalism school in 1989 telling me and my fellow students that we had to learn to angle our stories so pointedly that we could shove them up a lark’s arse. Yes, that might be true sometimes. But I truly believe that we often do ourselves and our readers a disservice by zooming in so close that all context, all perspective, all the noise and nuance disappears. Maybe we ought to think about the poor lark sometimes as well … And it definitely makes a lot of sense also to look forward and consider possible solutions once we have reported on all the wrongs and the rot. So even though I have always believed in that, I haven’t necessarily had the language, the tools and the guts to express that belief and to execute accordingly. 10 months as a fellow does not make me an expert. It also does not make me a blind disciple. But it has given me better tools and a stronger belief in the need for a readjustment within our profession. And it has given me a new language to talk about it.
… and now what?
My specific project at Constructive Institute has been to figure out whether and how a fast paced news agency with a diverse group of customers can make use of constructive journalism. As part of that I have made a series of thorough and structured interviews with key Ritzau clients. We have talked both about their views on constructive journalism as a concept and about my very specific ideas about what Ritzau could do. I look very much forward to working with that once I get back to my job. I will miss student life, my fellow fellows, and a lot of good talks. But I leave Constructive Institute refueled with love, luxury and language.
Look At Me! I am About to Commit a Terror Attack
It is a rare opportunity to return to school at a mature age. Suddenly you find yourself at a university among students who are smart enough to be one’s teacher and young enough to be one’s children.
Often, for the past ten months, I have felt like the suitor in Oscar Wilde’s play ‘The Importance of being Earnest’, who is asked if he knows everything or nothing and after some hesitation must admit that there are no gaps in his ignorance.
The Irish playwright also thought about the perfect society and believed that “a world map without Utopia is not worth looking at because it lacks the one country where humanity is constantly landing”. But is it ideally worth striving for, our political science teacher asked us in the course: “Do we (still) need political Utopias?”
That issue has something in common with what prompted me last year to apply for a fellowship at the Constructive Institute at Aarhus University: For years, it has haunted me that we journalists help people whose strongest weapon is the ability to hold media attention because extreme actions and utterances are and will be “a good story”. So how do the media avoid being part of the problem and stop making the world a worse place?
Since the terror attack on the United States on September 11. 2001 changed the world order I have covered the international struggle against violent fanatics who have been able, with ever weaker means, to hold the attention of an entire world.
In the past year there has been a wave of Islamist and so-called right-wing attacks, a new and unfocused form of terror, which makes one suspect that the real motive is often different from religion and politics. Maybe it’s more about lack of attention or an ideology of narcissism. It is hard to decide whether that type of solo attack is terror or rather crime in the style of school shootings.
Angry young men realized many years ago that the way into the media’s breaking news stream is through violence. “If it bleeds it leads,” is an American press term, and earlier this year before a deranged German drove his silver-gray Mercedes through a carnival in the federal state of Hessen, he told his neighbor that he would soon be in the newspaper.
The hunt for attention places or ought to place the media in a difficult dilemma, as they inevitably become a tool for a marginal group of people who usually have nothing but destruction to offer. Without press coverage, the interest in committing atrocities would evaporate, which could speak in favour of silencing the unwary. On the other hand, it is an illusion to imagine that the media should look the other way. For how does one do that?
THERE ARE ALTERNATE ANSWERS OUT THERE. It is worthwhile turning our attention to New Zealand, where five major news organizations agreed on joint editorial guidelines following the attack last year on two mosques in the city of Christchurch. During the Friday prayer in March, a 28-year-old Australian killed a total of 51 people and wounded nearly as many as he shot wildly and livestreamed the massacre on Facebook.
The prospect of having to convey the perpetrator’s thoughts on the supremacy of the white race led to an unusual pre-trial collaboration. The publications of the five media companies would continue to be the eyes and ears of the people in court, but in a different way from the filter less publicity of the social media. Specifically, the guidelines are to not show or blur symbols, hand signs and images intended solely for the propaganda of a terrorist ideology.
If something similar were to happen at home, established Danish media could be inspired by New Zealand either collectively or as individual news organisations. At the same time, one might ask who in the public would benefit from knowing the perpetrator’s name and face – in addition to himself and his followers on the darkest pages of the internet. Why are initials not enough to describe the case, and does it have to be on the front and fill the entire surface of the page when there is nothing new to report?
In fact, there are precedents where Danish media have had a common consensus on covering or rather not covering a case. While the photographer Daniel Rye was held hostage to the Islamic State in Syria, the media didn’t mention his case through 13 months in 2013 and 2014 for the sake of his survival. It is not impossible to act responsibly to save human life and avoid public propaganda so what should prevent the principle from being used in other exceptional cases?
Since the cartoon crisis in 2005 Danes have had to live with the terror threat of terror as a basic condition, and this has also been read in the Tryg Foundation’s recurring measurements. In 2017, every fourth Dane announced that they are afraid of becoming a victim of terror. Even though the risk of being killed in a terror attack was 0.0000000028 percent in 2016 for an average Western European, the feeling of physical insecurity of the population has grown from 7 percent in 2007 to 23 percent ten years later.
In the Tryg Foundation’s new measurement for 2019, the fear barometer has fallen to 18 percent, but with two pending terror cases in Danish courts and a constant serious threat, if one is to believe the intelligence services, this picture can quickly deteriorate. The task of the media must therefore be to cover cases of terrorism in a more constructive way.
Who to Rescue and How to Cover? Dilemmas of Health and Reporting
Try to imagine a traffic accident. A car crashes into a tree at full speed. The two men in the car are seriously injured, so seriously that they will die if they don´t get any treatment.
Try to imagine that you are the only one to witness the accident. The only one, who can supply help to the two men. But you can only help one of them.
Who will you rescue? The youngest? Or the one of the two, who is the father of a young child? What if I tell you, that one of them is handicapped – would that have an impact on your choice?
Luckily this is only an imaginary dilemma. For you. But for some doctors and nurses, these tough questions of prioritization became the grim reality as the coronavirus pandemic hit the world this spring. In some countries the number of infected patients skyrocketed and threatened to leave the health professionals with no other option, than to choose between the patients, when the numbers of ventilators were far too few.
The coronavirus pandemic made the discussion of prioritization in the health sector unpleasantly urgent. Not only when it comes to rationing the treatment of COVID-19 patients, but also in regard to the amount of resources we will spend on trying to fight the virus. The value of a life saved became the topic of an intense debate.
My focus for this fellowship has been the future challenges of prioritization in health. Suddenly, this spring I found that this topic was in the center of the news coverage. The ethical dilemmas, that we had been discussing purely as theoretical questions in my lectures at the university, jumped out of the classroom and right into the columns of the newspapers.
Being a fellow and not a reporter producing news every day, I have been able to follow the coverage closely from the sideline and perform research interviews with both health and media professionals. This has given me an insight into how challenging it is for the media to handle questions of prioritization in a nuanced way. Far too often the reporting ends up being too simplified, focusing only on one side of the problem.
This year I have worked on getting a better understanding on many levels of the health care system and the challenges it is facing in the future. I have been talking to a lot of clever people about, how we as journalists and editors can present questions of prioritization and rationing, so that the dilemmas are reported fair and nuanced way. This means, for instance, remembering to tell both sides of the story and not only ask critical questions, when a treatment is rejected, but also when it is approved.
It is a difficult task to report in a constructive way about dilemmas, and I haven’t found the perfect way to do it yet. But I am working on it. Next step for me will be to conduct debates with both health experts, journalists and the audience about the coverage of the corona crisis and how to discuss the dilemmas of prioritization, so that we all gain knowledge and a better understanding of the challenges and the choices, we will be facing.
Even if a vaccine against COVID-19 is found we look into a future where the questions about how to use our money on health the most beneficial way are even more urgent than now. The demographic development and the costs of the fight against the coronavirus put pressure on the economy, that makes prioritization a necessity. As a way of dealing with this problem, the Danish health authorities will introduce a new assessment council for treatments, as well as taking a new way of validating both medicine and treatment in to use. This system is called QALY, which stands for Quality-Adjusted Life Year, and is a means to measure how much better your life will be, if you get a specific treatment. This is expected to make the prioritization of medicine and interventions more transparent. But not easier and not free from ethical dilemmas.
Let us return to the traffic accident. Have you made up your mind? There is no right or wrong answer here, only good arguments. And that is one of the reasons, why it can be so difficult to prioritize in health. And why it is so hard to cover it, making sure to include all the important nuances and perspectives.
My fellowship allowed me to dive into all these nuances and perspectives to get a better understanding of both health issues and constructive journalism. It has been 10 months of great quality, that I am sure will last many life years for me.
“Why do we Have so Many Categories Between People?”
A student asked this question, when I visited a school with young adults west of Copenhagen in the fall. She went on indignantly: “There are danes, there are refugees, there are refugees born here – so danes, but yet again not really danes”. More than the student could know, her question pinpointed what became a focal point in my fellowship.
Categories are essential. We use categories to understand the world around us and to communicate. But when it comes to people being categorized – especially minorities – it gets difficult. Also for journalists: How to report on problems regarding minorities without stigmatizing?
When I started my fellowship at Constructive Institute I did not think much about categories. My mind was set on minority neighborhoods and people feeling in opposition to the rest of society. But whilst learning about ‘in-group/out-group’, minorities, Muslims and ethnicity in courses of Anthropology, Arabic- and Islam studies and Religious Studies I came to think, how all these courses somehow evolve around broadening the students understanding of categories. And I thought about how I as a journalist tap into and help create common categories. For instance using the terms “people with another ethnic background”, “ghettos” or “immigrant children”.
The inevitable categories seems an Achilles heel for journalists, who report on minorities with no intent to stigmatize and thereby unknowingly further polarize society. But then what? I have sometimes felt like an intruder from the real and dirty world sitting in a classroom full of beautiful ideals. I’ve had some good discussions with the students and professors. When I showed a class a typical news article that I have written, they criticized it for stigmatizing wording in the headline, that says: “New report: 40 percent of immigrant children have no parents at work”. Then we discussed how to make it better – in the journalistic reality of short and catchy headlines. I’m not sure I was convinced by their ideas regarding the headline – but they came up with good inputs on how to add nuance to the article in general or how to investigate further to see if the angle of the story really reflected what we journalists like to call ‘the best obtainable version of the truth’.
Before I get to my own conclusion on how to improve journalism in this field, I would like to explain why I applied for this fellowship:
When I began my first real job as journalist in January 2015, I had not been at the news agency BNB for a full week, before I was covering the terrorist attack on the satire magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. One month later, terror came to Denmark. And for the next few years, it was all about jihadists and home grown terrorists. The home-grown terrorists caught attention in particular – because why? Why did some young men attack what we perceive as the best place to live – the free western countries, where their parents years ago sought a better life as migrants or protection as refugees? I changed job to Berlingske but still kept an interest in violent extremism – and the threat from the other side, whom we all knew to be just as dangerous after Anders Breiviks attack in Norway in 2011.
Today it’s been more than five years since I scrolled through French news sites during the terror attack on Charlie Hebdo. And one could hope, that the hatred from both sides had diminished – and the understanding grown. But the intelligence service still report on averted islamic terrorist attacks and at the last election more than 63.000 people voted for the party of Rasmus Paludan, who is convicted of racism.
And what have I done as a journalist during these five years? I have written a number of articles on terrorist attacks, gang crime and integration challenges, and I hope, these articles have brought information to the table and helped solve issues. But I fear, that some have also added to stigmatization and further polarization. At least, I’m not sure, everything is going the right way, when I look out the window.
I did look out the window just before I applied for this fellowship. It was a Sunday evening. An orange light caught my attention through the curtains, so I got back out of bed to find, that several cars had been building a fire up against the building I live in. All afternoon, the soundtrack had been fireworks and sirens, and young boys with their faces covered had been running around the streets followed by police officers. It was the result of a demonstration earlier that same day, where the man mentioned above – Rasmus Paludan – had been tossing a Koran around at Blågårds Plads on Nørrebro in Copenhagen.
When I applied for this fellowship, I asked for time to look into the main reasons why some people living in marginalized neighborhoods feel they are living in opposition to the rest of the society. At the same time I wanted to explore how media can avoid being seen as part of this opposition and instead help both the neighborhood and the surrounding society participate in a democratic and constructive debate. In broader terms, I wanted to know, how journalists can cover issues of integration in a more constructive way.
I wish there were clear and simple answers to these questions. After a year of discussing journalism with fellows and staff at Constructive Institute, following courses at Aarhus University, talking to experts and hands-on people, police and ex-criminals, young people on the edge of the educational system, teachers and so on, I have not found easy sound bytes to answer these dilemmas. But I have found guidelines, tendencies, ideas and new questions. Let me try and share some of it here:
I have visited Mjølnerparken, Vollsmose and Gellerup – all areas on the governments list of ‘hard ghettos’ – where residents complain, that media exaggerate any negative story related to their neighborhood. They says that the news media forgets to show the full picture and the progress, these areas have seen the last few years. Examples are the rising levels of education and the falling crime rates. The critique is not unfamiliar to me.
I am aware, that a neighborhood can be categorized as a “hard ghetto” solely because of the inhabitants ethnic background, their educational level and their income, which is the case for Mjølnerparken. Vollsmose and Gellerup also meet the last two criteria regarding crime and unemployment. Even though I know the critique, one young woman from Vollsmose in particular hit me with her message:
“The criminals make up a tiny percentage – and you know who it is, but instead of going after them, you make a collective punishment and decide to tear down buildings. Let me explain it by saying: Every time it is “Anders”, you just hear about people from Vollsmose, who has done something bad. But no. It’s just Anders. Again and again.”
She declined the need for positive stories about her neighborhood. She sees these as the medias search for redemption and mentioned how one positive story is likely seen as the positive exception to a generally troubled area. She wants to be portrayed as a completely normal citizen like everyone else.
Sociologist and author to several books about young men in minority neighborhoods, Aydin Soei, talks about a feeling of “modborgerskab” roughly translated to “counter-citizenship” within minority neighborhoods, where residents feel they must go an extra mile to prove their worth because of their ethnicity and adress:
“The residential area is a kind of handicap for them making it more difficult to get an internship, get a job, get into a discotheque”.
It is difficult to know with each failure, whether the name and address really did disqualify, or if a rejection is caused by a poorly written application and a dirty criminal record. But recent research actualized with the Black Lives Matters protests points toward discrimination and racism. You have to send more applications to get a job interview, if you have a minority ethnic background or if you wear a muslim headscarf.
It is one thing feeling stigmatized, another living up to the stigma. Aydin Soei points towards one main factor, when young boys turn into grown up criminals: The school. If you can’t read and understand a normal newspaper after primary school and don’t make further progression in the educational system, another way to gain respect, get an affiliation to a community and earn money is the criminal way. The number of gang criminals has declined in the last decade, but simultaneously they have become more marginalized.
Other experts, social workers, ex-criminals, residents etc, that I have interviewed on the feeling of “modborgerskab” and criminal behavior also mention the school as an important factor. Besides education other contributing factors are: social problems in the family, lack of confidence in adults, a different upbringing with less strict rules for boys than girls, underrepresentation in media as recognizable citizens and an unproportionate negative focus.
We do have a problem with underrepresentation of minorities in news media, and when ethnic minorities appear it is often in articles about crime and unemployment. Regarding the negative focus: I believe that a main job for journalism is to describe abuse of power and problems in our society in order for us all to solve the problems together – keeping a critical eye also on the solutions being brought forward. And I do see a number of real problems in minority neighborhoods with gang criminals, negative social control, extortion and so on.
BUT, I believe in one more main job for journalism in a democratic society, which is to give a true and more wholesome picture of the realities, so we don’t go to the polls and vote for changes on basis of a distorted negative view on our society.
Regarding the second main job, studies indicate that media can do better. People think it is going worse than it actually is in multiple areas from crime to poverty. Adding to the job is the tendency in our brain to remember dangerous and negative things.
This brings me back to the question: How to report on problems regarding minorities without stigmatizing? I think we need a better overall representation of ethnic minorities in the news. And then I think journalists need to be thoughtful of the categories we use – but I don’t necessarily believe, that changing the name of a group, makes everyone think any different about the people in it. So rather than debating yet another new title for so called “new danes”, “people with another ethnic background” or “people from non-western countries”, I think journalists need to add nuances and perspective to the reporting about this minority. We still need to address the specific problems, that exists, but simultaneously I think we need to work harder to also present a wholesome picture that reflects “the best obtainable version of the truth” about this group. Reporting on a specific problem should always come with a bigger context. We might have a problem with violence, then let’s take care of that whilst being aware of the overall falling crime rates.
One resident in Mjølnerparken put it this way: “Next time there is a shooting, it would be nice, if a journalist interviewed 13-year old Muhammed about how scared it makes him – and not the old white lady.”
I also think we need to consider what categories to use at what time. This is a difficult question. When does it make sense to mention ethnicity? Does it make sense to mention a shooters ethnicity? Not if it is a lone incident. But if there has been several shootings, and the shooters have the same ethnicity, there is a pattern to describe and investigate – which gives hope for a solution to the problem. Not to say, that the ethnicity is the cause. As imprinted in any scientists head “correlation does not imply causation”. But as long as we don’t know the causation, the best thing we can do as journalists is to describe incidents as thoroughly as we can. With every possible detail.
Coming to the end of my fellowship my head is still spinning with all the input from the last ten months. Categories. Ethnicity. Constructive. I have only mentioned a tiny bit here, and I think I have only just started to digest the fellowship meal. But I look forward to mix all the new knowledge and inspiration with my own fundamental drive to make people understand each other better.
What Did I Learn in School This Year
Looking into the last few weeks of my fellowship, I have started to sum up, what I will bring back to TV 2/Fyn, and what I will do differently when I’m back. These thoughts have also made me think of what kind of journalism I practiced, and how I approached stories before I became a fellow and began to look systematically into constructive journalism.
And every time I let my thoughts wander, I get back to a story I did about the former mayor of Odense, Anker Boye. He held the position as mayor of Odense for 17 years.
After Anker Boye had stepped down, the famous Danish painter Thomas Kluge painted his portrait for it to be on display in Odense City Hall. That’s normal procedure in Odense, and seven other former mayors have been portrayed in a painting. The painting cost 250.000 DKK, and when it was presented, I did the story about it with a focus on price. One element was a vox pop with some of the citizens of Odense. The story, of course, was broadcast on TV 2/Fyn, published on our website, and shared on social media.
It was a good story, it was totally correct, and it was relevant because I showed the readers and viewers how the city spent their tax money. But did I do good for society? Did I strengthen democracy, did I facilitate a conversation between the politicians and the voters? Did I tell another story about why it is important to keep memories for posterity, and that the painting perhaps is a very good investment because it will increase in value? No, I did not. I angled the story sharply: The politicians had spent 250.000 DKK at a time when the city had cut the budgets.
At the time I would say, of course, that it was a good story about how powerful men and women are spending the taxpayers’ money. But after I have looked into constructive journalism during my fellowship for the last 10 months, I have had second thoughts. Obviously it’s a relevant story that we should tell. But the older and smarter me now thinks that I should have been more nuanced when telling the story. But I wasn’t nuanced at the time. I just wanted to tell the story about the politicians stupid way of spending money. And of course I almost knew before publication how people would react on social media. They would be angry, thinking that the politicians are crooks, and the money would have been better spent on other things.
That was my moment of truth, and the beginning of thinking whether I as a journalist perhaps should start to tell stories in a way that not only make people point fingers; and of how stories are not only one dimensional.
Could there be a more responsible way to act as a journalist? Now after 10 months of thinking of the role of a journalist and the way the media shapes the glasses through which people look at society, I must admit that we as journalists have to be more responsible.
We frame how people perceive society. And when our starting point is always problems rather than solutions, or about politicians spending money in a stupid way, people will get a wrong impression of their world. We have to look at journalism in a different way.
Today – ten months smarter – I would still tell the story about the painting of the mayor. But I know that I would have made the story with nuances, so that it was possible to see that it is not just a story about politicians spending money in a stupid way. It is also a story about keeping memories for posterity. It is also a story about supporting Danish artists and about honouring a person who has given many years of his life to do good for his city. Today I would have asked a historian why it is worth paying 250.000 DKK for a painting of a former mayor. What can a piece of art add to the story of a city. I would have talked to an expert of arts, that could have told something about the very fine piece of art, and why it is so very special.
It’s about remembering and thinking of both the black and the white. And when you do so the result could sometimes be grey. But sometimes reality is grey – many shades of grey. When you tell the story of how 50 percent of immigrants coming from Turkey, Pakistan, Iran and Bosnia are unemployed, it is a very good story. But when 50 percent are unemployed, that must mean that the other half is not. And then the very good story could be to tell how the other half got a job. That story might inspire some of the unemployed immigrants, and that would be good for society. So for me it is a way of thinking: Tell the story about the problem, but please tell the story about the solution or the nuances afterwards.
During my fellowship I’ve started to write down many good pieces of advice, ideas and thoughts on constructive journalism. In the beginning I only did it in order for me to remember. But after a while I’d written so much that I thought I could make some kind of pamphlet that I could give to my colleagues at work. But the piles of notes grew and I’ve decided to write a book about how to do constructive journalism. And that is what I will do when I return to my job at TV 2/Fyn. It will not be easy or a quick fix. But I hope that it will play its part in making Funen a better place, and I hope that my book and my findings could be my little contribution to making the world a better place.
Living in a Dream Country with Pre-puberty Kids, Constructively
To summarize into one essay the meaning of the fellowship, seems nearly impossible. The time in Aarhus meant different things on many different levels. Let me try to explain.
When I studied journalism in Paris in the late 1990’s, I befriended two Danish journalists who became very dear to me. During the years to follow, as I worked as a foreign correspondent in many different countries, I kept visiting Denmark. I often thought it would be great to live in the country for a while.
To me Denmark had managed to combine the best of two cultures. It was a solid Scandinavian welfare state with familiar well-functioning public service, similar to Sweden and my native Finland, but it also seemed to have a more relaxed side to it, a bit more of southern European flair with a taste of good cooking and closer family ties.
My interest in the Danish system had a more professional side to it too. I had co-written a best-selling book Lumedemokratia (Quasi-democracy), where my co-author Taneli Heikka and I questioned the Finnish post-war history with its sometimes flirtatious relationship with the Soviet Union, its self-censorship and its lack of genuinely free press – and the implications all this had on the society. We also criticised the Finnish consensus-society, the comfortable union of the elite and the lack of a real civil society.
Since our book came out in 2009, Finland has transformed from a semi-forced consensus to a more liberal and open-minded country. Denmark was also a consensus-society, but from our point-of-view, a very different one. It looked as if it had managed to keep the 5 plus million population in the same boat. Even if Denmark has since the beginning of our relationship in the 1990’s moved to a more closed and somewhat harsher direction, it still seems to have the capacity to act as a nation when necessary, whether it is about reforming the labor laws or locking the country down when facing a pandemic.
Journalistically our fellowship took place in an interesting time. I realized this when a Finnish colleague asked how my fellow fellows see journalism after Aarhus. Are they optimistic or rather sceptical of the future?
Some years ago, when the crisis in media was at its peak many prominent journalists left the profession. We who stayed made gloomy forecasts about how long the big papers would still be around. I believe the tide has now turned and the fellows will return from Aarhus more confident about their future. I will at least.
The fellowship meant rethinking the way we do journalism. It has to do with what we learned during the fellowship, but it is even bigger than that. The doomsday sentiment that overshadowed journalism for years has dissolved and the audiences are showing their appreciation of trustworthy media. Personally, I re-found the thrill of reporting and the love of journalism that had started to fade.
The pandemic left its mark on our fellowship, obviously. When the lock-down started in March, the teaching went quickly online. With all its implications, the pandemic made us think how impossible becomes possible when there is no other way. Could we do something similar when facing the climate crisis?
My personal project in Aarhus was to reflect on climate crisis reporting. The subject itself was not new to me, but I wanted to put things into perspective. What does it really mean if the temperature rises 1,5 degrees or if a company has managed to reduce its CO2-emissions?
As a part of our final project my fellow fellow Sarah Golczyk and I organized a Climate Reporting Workshop during June 2020. We gathered Nordic scientists and journalists together to discuss the challenges they faced reporting on this complex and crucial story.
During the workshop we talked about the tough decisions our respective countries could make by June 2021. Maybe more subvention on electric cars and tighter bans on gasoline and diesel cars? Stricter controls of mass tourism and a tax on flying? 10-fold investment in green tech and many other things! We talked about the difficulty (of journalists) to distinguish the real facts in climate debate and the challenge (of scientists) to get the facts across to media without simplifying the truth too much. We discussed democracy and activism and whether we should be afraid of being too “activistic” in our reporting. The workshop was a success and we vowed to keep the discussion going.
On the personal level moving two school-aged children to a foreign country was a bigger challenge I had anticipated. Leaving friends, own school and extended family behind was tough, and we faced some difficult moments in Aarhus. Still, I am confident that one day my children will remember their time in Denmark with similar joy and gratitude as I do.