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Sweden's election is being misreported abroad – and this is a problem

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Election posters in Stockholm. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT
15:58 CEST+02:00
Bad foreign reporting on Sweden's election risks giving readers around the world a false impression of the state of the country, argues The Local's co-founder James Savage.

On Sunday I will cover my fourth Swedish election night for The Local. The contrast with the first one in 2006 could not be greater.

Then, the Social Democrats were set to be swept away by a newly-unified centre right after a 12-year unbroken spell in power. Their 70-year status as the star around which the rest of Swedish politics orbited was at an end. 

A significant election, but the rest of the world mostly looked on and shrugged. In London, a few Guardian columnists mourned, but not much more than that. 

What a difference a decade makes. The rise of the Sweden Democrats – and the obvious parallels to Trump, Le Pen and Brexit – means the attention focused on Sweden is out of all proportion to the country's size. Yet the decline of the foreign correspondent means that few media companies employ journalists who know anything about Sweden, let alone live here or speak the language. 

Imagine a journalist covering a US election who arrived in Washington a week before, had paid no attention to US politics for the preceding four years and didn't speak English. You now have a picture of many of the foreign journalists covering Sweden.

Combine this with the pressure to chase clicks and the result is dire: simplistic, sensationalist journalism that is frequently just plain wrong.

Last month, a Newsweek report screamed that a "far-right, anti-Islam party could win a majority in upcoming elections". The party in question is the Sweden Democrats – currently polling between 17 and 24 percent, so at least 25 points short of a majority. The headline was simply untrue, but the article is still up.

Likewise, the New York Times published an op-ed by a German journalist that claimed that the Sweden Democrats had 'conquered' Sweden. The piece, like so many others, goes on to paint a dystopian picture of Sweden that is at odds with the experience of most people living here. A few anecdotes about gang violence in the suburbs leave the reader with the false impression of a society in decay, a point made well by Stockholm-based American journalism professor Christian Christensen.

The author goes on to betray his weak grasp of Swedish politics by stating that the Sweden Democrats "might end up in government" on Sunday (something that is not even remotely likely). He adds that SD success "makes a coalition government between the Social Democrats and the Moderate Party unlikely” (a nonsensical statement), and then speculates that the Social Democrats and Moderate parties might split as a result of the election – something that nobody who has observed Swedish politics could possibly assert.

Not all the reporting is bad – some pieces, often by journalists who know Sweden well – are very perceptive and well-researched.

Unfortunately though, the poor examples are all too typical. Dire diagnoses of the state of Sweden permeate almost every article about the election. You expect this from hyper-partisan sites like Breitbart or state propaganda like Sputnik, but mainstream media outlets are repeating the same tropes. 

Yet amid all the talk of crime and immigration and societal collapse, readers are rarely told that Swedes are equally exercised by humdrum issues such as healthcare and schooling. They could easily miss that Swedish politicians have reached a broad consensus on a restrictive migration policy and on the need for criminal justice reforms. They could also be forgiven for not realizing that much Sweden Democrat support is caused as much by economic factors and regions that have lost their sense of purpose as it is by immigration. Most importantly, they could be forgiven for not realizing that while there's a chance the next government will do a deal with the Sweden Democrats to get its budget through, it will almost certainly not include Sweden Democrat ministers.

There's no doubt that this is an extraordinary election in Sweden: politicians' handling of the 2015 migrant crisis was disastrous. They looked helpless in the face of gang crime, shootings and arson attacks in some areas. They also underestimated the number of Swedes who were natural cultural conservatives sceptical of globalization, feminism and climate change. Politicians here are worried that a high score for the Sweden Democrats will make forming a government hard. But foreign media currently reporting here are presenting a picture of Sweden that exaggerates the problems and misrepresents the facts – and this does their readers a disservice.

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