OPINION: How coronavirus helped me appreciate Sweden’s tame media

OPINION: How coronavirus helped me appreciate Sweden's tame media
Richard Orange argues that the Swedish media has been much less critical of the authorities than their UK counterparts. Photo: Ali Lorestani/TT
The Swedish media let down the people in their coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, but there's still something to be said for a more socially conscious approach, writes freelance journalist Richard Orange.
British journalists love a good row. Headline words such as “Fury!” and “Outrage!” are the stuff of media cliché. 
 
So as the coronavirus death toll in Sweden started to rise dramatically in April, my editors in London got increasingly impatient: What's the reaction in the media, from opposition politicians, from the public at large? 
 
They wanted angry editorials in the newspapers, apologetic ministers, resignations, and a total U-turn in strategy. 
 
But for week after week, none of these things happened. Sweden's disastrous numbers made the front pages in Norway and Denmark almost daily, but Swedish newspapers more often than not managed to find a totally different angle. 
 
My editors couldn't understand how the media could meet such a high death tally with such a strangely sanguine reaction. 
 
When the so-called “22 researchers” at the start of April attacked Sweden's strategy, all state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell had to do was sprinkle a little doubt over the statistics they used – unfairly I think – and they were more or less silenced under a barrage of media criticism. It was a textbook example of the Swedish media's herd mentality.

Sweden's deputy state epidemiologist Anders Wallensten being interviewed by a newspaper. Photo: Ali Lorestani/TT

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Obviously it's not as if critical voices have been completely absent in the Swedish media's coverage of coronavirus.
 
But it took at least two weeks after Sweden's dire coronavirus statistics became obvious to anyone looking before this fact was reflected properly in the media. 
 
Even since the middle of May, when the media started to accept that in some ways Sweden had clearly failed, most journalists have been unwilling to question the overall strategy. 
 
Instead, we've seen a flurry of reports from countries where the situation has been even worse. 
 
When Tegnell argued that the responsibility lay with elderly care facilities, I felt frustrated that the Public Health Agency received so little criticism for launching its strategy without checking that care homes would be able to carry it out. 
 
As a Swedish citizen and resident, I am in many ways grateful that society has been kept open, that my children have been able to continue going to school and that life could continue much more as normal than in the UK. 
 
But I'm also disappointed that the media has not been more honest about what this greater openness means. It means allowing the virus to spread more widely in society, which as result made it much harder for elderly care facilities to keep the infection away. 

Swedish Health Minister Lena Hallengren at a press conference about coronavirus measures. Photo: Ali Lorestani/TT
 
I have reflected a little on why the Swedish media was so uncritical for so long and I now suspect it comes down to the different professional ethic Swedish journalists have. 
 
I may be wrong, but it is my feeling that journalists in Sweden see themselves as having more of a public information role than those in the UK, and so feel a greater responsibility to help society as a whole function more smoothly. 
 
British journalists, in my experience, don't feel any responsibility at all to help the authorities, or to keep the general public calm in a crisis.
 
Quite the reverse: we want to find the news or angles which rouse the most emotion among the public, which more often than not are also those that make life most difficult for the authorities. 
 
We feel no responsibility for how society as a whole copes with a crisis. That's the government's job, not ours.
For most of my time in Sweden, I've felt uncomfortable with the Swedish media's, in my opinion, slightly unclear, double role. 
 
But now, when I look over at the chaos in the UK, at how the media have aroused such high levels of fear, anxiety and mistrust among the public, the Swedish model is starting to look more attractive. 
 
I still don't believe that the Swedish media has given the general public a complete picture of the crisis, and I feel they have failed in their role of holding the government and authorities to account. 
 
But if I compare how angry, afraid and betrayed those living in the UK seem to feel today with the situation in Sweden, where, despite everything, people remain fairly calm, I'm no longer quite sure which media ethic is the better one. 
 
This is an external opinion piece written by Richard Orange, a British freelance journalist who has lived in Sweden for 10 years and writes for English-language media including The Local, The Telegraph and The Observer. Follow him on Twitter here. This article was first published in the Aftonbladet newspaper as British journalist: The Swedish media let down the people. The Local has used the author's preferred headline.
 

Richard Orange. Photo: Private

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