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My first meeting with tabloid media and the dog who saved my life

Incidentally, this is the title of an old post I never got around to finishing, but, since I used this story last week for a column I write, I thought I’d finally make an attempt of blogging about it.

Now what got me thinking about this old, and rather personal story, was when Norwegian tabloid Dagbladet ran with a very controversial front page depicting the erratic behaviour of a Norwegian on trial for murder in Congo.A montage of photos of him appearing to be psychotic was accompanied by the title "See How Sick He Is".

Following massive protests about the front page, many of the most vocal ones on micro blogging site Twitter, Dagbladet did apologise for what it dubbed its ”unmusical” coverage, though also ran a story with the Congo-prisoner’s mother saying the media should not stop showing how ill her son was as the most important thing for her was him getting proper help.

Media violations

What readers and commentators seemed to find most disturbing about this front page was how it depicted a man who was clearly mentally ill and should be spared media’s spotlight, accompanied by a title most found to be in very bad taste. However, what I felt was lacking in the debate that followed was how this kind of media ”violation” is not unusual. We saw it after the Tsunami in 2004, after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 and have seen and see it in countless other instances.

Media’s handling of vulnerable people - either in a state of shock, or mentally ill people who provoke, or are caught up in, big news events - is a minefield, and one I am all too familiar with. When I was 17 I was run down by a car while out walking, and left to die next to a deserted forest road. Unconscious, bleeding heavily, face down in the snow and not visible from the road, I would not have been here today if it had not been for my dog getting help, but that’s another story (I’ve touched on it here, a friend has written more here).

Harsh meeting with the tabloid press

When the case came to court, a seemingly stressed reporter showed up and only wanted a quick photo, as it seemed he’d already written the story, at least in his mind. The photo he wanted was of me shaking hands with the guy who ran me down and left me to die, and the headline would be ”I forgive you”.

He never got that photo. Not because I have a burning hatred against the perpetrator, I had no memory of the car accident, still don’t, and everything that happened just seemed surreal to me when the case came to court. But something in me made me refuse, albeit hesitantly. I had to say no several times for the reporter to get the message, but the whole thing was so surreal to me that, looking back, I know, had I been approached differently, I might have accepted the proposition and lived to regret it.

Shock and fear

Today, I can see that I was still in a state of shock. This was quite some time after the accident, I don’t remember the year, but I lost my sense of fear for several years after the accident. When you wake up in a hospital just to be told you almost died in an accident you have no memory of it seems pointless to go around worrying about all the bad things that can happen. It had already happened.

Now, loosing my sense of fear was not entirely a bad thing, against all odds I accomplished a lot career wise in those years, but today I can acknowledge that I either I had a prolonged shock-like reaction to a near-death experience, or I had a slight change of personality.

Not black and white

The reason I’m sharing this story is not to crucify the reporter in question, rather I wanted to illustrate how difficult it can be to judge when a person is in shock or not. There are ethical boundaries it never is acceptable to break - and I would argue that in my case the reporter was trying to manufacture news rather than report it, which I don’t have much sympathy for.

Still, a lot of the time these cases are not black and white, though it is also worth reflecting on how the kind of opportunism the reporter in my case showed, is something often encouraged in reporters - admired even.

The "strong, human angle"

As a reporter you do want to talk with eyewitnesses after events like the Tsunami, or with the victim in court cases ranging from traffic accidents to rape, but they will for obvious reasons be affected by what they’ve experienced, and news values may crash with human concerns. The hunt for a ”strong human angle” may lead reporters to pay too little heed to the state of mind their interview-objects are in, which in this day and age often will cause not only strong reactions from those caught up in the event, but often also a backlash against the media organisation the reporters represents.

I find this last bit both comforting and encouraging: in a world where social media radically lowers the barrier for making your opinion heard, media organisations are frequently held to court for the decisions they make, and sometimes forced to apologise, even when media practitioners all to well understand the rationale for those ”unmusical decisions”.


At the scene of the accident in 1994, almost a year after it happened

Talking of ethics: I shall be attending the Institute of Communication Ethics’ annual conference in Coventry today, followed by a seminar on journalism in crisis at Coventry University. (BTW, this post was written hurriedly on the train with a crap web connection, so not had the time to read thru it properly).

CAR-journalism: Tax day, Facebook-apps and Nosy Neighbours

It’s that day of the year: the tax lists are made public in Norway and the country’s hacks have been up since the wee hours, working hard to provide us with new ways to pry into our neighbours' earnings - and those of the rich, powerful and famous.

The term ”Big brother is watching you” springs to mind; though it is more like a whole army of David’s watching you. Norwegian news sites’ eager work to make the tax lists available means everyone and his dog can check up on how much you earned and taxed the previous year, and it proves an equally big ”click winner” each year.

This year a Facebook application which allows people to check what all their Norwegian Facebook friends earned and taxed last year is raising eyebrows. The application, provided by both the country’s main commercial TV channel, TV2, and the second most read tabloid, Dagbladet, is causing quite some outrage among my Twitter-friends, and a quick search on hashtags like #TV2fail and #skattelister shows they’re not the only ones.

It is possible to block these applications, which I must admit would be my natural inclination, but as a journalist I feel it would send the wrong signal even though I’ve never been a fan of how the tax lists are made available on tax day.

Ironically, it is perhaps the one example of computer assisted reporting (CAR) known to most Norwegians, but several of the CAR-specialists I know are sceptical to the kind of information the tax lists provide us with. They want more details of course, details that would have enabled them to make more useful comparisons that would tell us more about income divides related to geography, class, education etc, not only be a tool for nosy neighbours and envy as it mostly is today - and a rather imprecise tool at that.

Every year the tax lists contain a lot of mistakes, and the numbers can be very misleading because of the way they are presented. As someone who works both as a salaried journalist and as self-employed, I’ve certainly seen again and again that the tax lists tend to miss one of the two types of income. Sometimes the tax lists also contain genuine mistakes, and it’s peculiar how you can read about your tax status on news sites before you get the actual letter from the tax office informing you of it.

If nothing else, this phenomena means Norwegians should have a stronger incentive to keep active social media profiles than most: it’s the best way to control your online identity and make sure the top Google hits on your name are stuff like your blog, your Twitter-, LinkedIn, Facebook profiles etc - and not your tax profile...

I must also admit it does feel good to be on my way to Bergen to host a meeting with Nick Diakopoulos on very different forms of CAR-journalism on a day like this (the talk is an open one, feel free to join us if you are in the vicinity).

Update: many thanks to Andreas for informing me that it is not the first year Facebook-apps such as the one described in this post have been available (in Norwegian).

Screengrabs below from last year's "Tax-day-journalism":

1) Tv2 on Norway's best earning editors, 2) Norway's public broadcaster (NRK) on princess Martha Louise's "heavenly income" from her angel school:



Shield law lunacy

In a world where journalism is in the danger of turning into a hobby, isn't it ironic that the US looks set to get a shield law that excludes non-salaried journalists from protection?

I've been following the slow progress of this potential new law for some time now, and I'm struck by how at odds its definition of who should be allowed to protect their sources is with the changing media landscape. I've previously bemoaned that it will offer no protection for the Dr Stockmanns of this world, but with the very nature of journalism and who committs valuable acts of journalism so much in flux, limiting the scope of this law to only protect salaried journalists seems very strange.

For one, bloggers, and outfits like Huffington Post, are increasingly providing valuable journalism, analysis and even investigations. Come to think of it, that has already been the case for years now, and I recently concluded in an article on blogging the crash (for a new book on the financial crash and the crisis in journalism) that some bloggers even covered the events leading up to the credit crisis better than traditional media.

This blog post over at Mediashift provides a good argument for why bloggers and citizen journalists deserve a shield law. But with the gloomy state of media finances these days, some are even predicting a future where (freelance) journalists will be forced to work for free. I'm not quite that pessimistic, but there is an uncomfortable grain of thruth or two in Charlie Beckett's post on Celibates, Priests or Toffs? The Future of Freelance.

Freesheet predicted Obama's peace prize

The decision to award this year's Nobel Peace Price to Barack Obama took the world by surprise, but it turns ut at least one newspaper was ahead of the game.

Based on the artists booked for the Nobel Peace Price cermony in Oslo 12 December, Metro Sweden, the daily freesheet, predicted the winner to be none other than the American President. The headline in Friday's print edition read: "The artists at the party reveals Barack Obama gets the peace price" (my translation), and the article asserted that come 11:00 CET 9 October Obama would be named this year's winner as all the artistst booked in for the celebration had some form of assocation with Obama (via


Evening Standard not the first "quality free"

News of The Evening Standard going free has been a major trending topic these last few days - both among London's Twitterati and in the Twingly channel I've set up on journalism & media (in beta, password-protected but see screengrab below).

We may speculate whether or not taking it free is a wise decision, but we're not entirely without case stories to compare it to. Standard-owener Alexander Lebedev and his editor, Geordie Greig, are apparently convinced that they can make a virtue of being the first "quality free": they may be that in the UK market, but Baugur-funded Dagsbrun ran "quality freesheets" for years on Iceland and in Denmark, the company's short-lived US-based free, "Boston Now", may also have fallen under that umbrella. I'm most familiar with the readership figures of their Danish start-up, Nyhedsavisen - a start-up which ended well, not in tears, both its competitors and its journalists, and I talked to both, seemed to drink to its demise albeit for different reasons, but at least in a humbling defeat.

The Icelandic-initiated Danish freesheet was at times the most read newspaper in all of Denmark, and its content, which was designed to compete with paid-for quality dailies rather than other freesheets, seemed to be a hit with well-educated women - often the big spenders in a family. At least I recall making a note of how it had a larger per centage of female and well-educated readers than other freesheets, whereas the Danish freesheets in general led to a larger percentage of young people, who wouldn't normally read papers, reading newspapers. I'm only quoting from memory but I'm sure I've written articles on this - though I fear it was for a print-only magazine.

Also, there are major differences between Nyhedavisen and The Evening Standard, the former was started from scratch in August 2006 whereas the latter has long traditions and a well-established audience, but Nyhedsavisen's readership figures certainly suggest there is a market for quality frees even among more affluent groups. Free daily Frettabladid, which Nyhedsavisen was modelled on, is still Iceland's most read newspaper as far as I know, but its business model is based on door-to-door distribution - a fact many felt was a major reason for the model's demise in Denmark. Earlier this year, Wired's Chris Anderson described it as a tale of free gone terribly wrong after Jon Lund asserted it was this model of "double free" which made Nyhedsavisen an unsustainable project in the end (both blog posts worth reading in full).     

Update 05.10.2009: see also Piet Bakker's post questioning the assertion that ES is the first "converted quality".