Picture your everday press conference. A politician or representative finishes his or her presentation, then it's question time. “Will you investigative why this or that thing happened?” a reporter asks. “No, that's not on the cards,” the person at the podium replies firmly. Without a “why not?”, the issue is dead and buried. You could have a million issues simmering below the surface, but no one will ever know.
Whether the topic is face masks or lockdowns, journalists' approach to the Swedish Public Health Agency's now more than 100 press conferences about Covid-19 has sparked an interesting debate in Swedish media circles about whether, as some would have it, our reporters are lousy at asking follow-up questions.
Far from being an internal industry discussion, this is one of the most crucial aspects of journalism, not just for reporters but for every citizen out there: the ability of the media to hold those in power to account.
The problem, some claim, is the new breed of Swedish journalists. Brought up in newsrooms where screens show (in real-time!) how many clicks each article gets, rather than in the slow, methodical reporting climate of Bernstein & Woodward, they're failing to do their job properly.
Others blame the financial crisis of today's media. When every reporter has to be able to cover every subject, as opposed to yesterday's specialised writers, it's no wonder they're not knowledgeable enough to ask more than the most basic of questions. There's no time to delve deeper; you just file away, then it's on to the next story.
Another explanation is that as confrontations get increasingly rare, soon perhaps the exclusive domain of investigative reporters (a diminishing group in itself due to cut-backs), journalists have begun to squirm at the thought of being a pain in the you-know-what. There's a parallel here to today's TikTok teens, brought up with less physical contacts than previous generations and flustered when thrown into real-life dating.
But media shyness has other, far-reaching effects. Allowing the polished or even skewed world-view of heads of government, company leaders and so on to take hold chips away at democracy, one unchallenged quote at a time.
The truth is likely to be a combination of all the above explanations, and I'd like to introduce an additional one: Swedishness. Fear of conflict, fear of authority, fear of being a party pooper – I believe several Swedish traits are on display here. And let's not forget the oppressive Law of Jante, which surely is at play too: “Don't try to rise above your station, don't think you're anything special”. A lowly reporter cannot know more than a renowned scientist, a parent more than a teacher, a black law student more than an aggressive police officer.
Does the Swedish climate encourage silence? Photo: Naina Helén Jåma/TT
Historically, chattiness has been discouraged in our sparsely populated nation. You kept to yourself because a) there wasn't anyone else around, or b) you did meet up with other people, but solely to do business or errands in a brisk and efficient manner (the cold, remember) – then made your way back home. Alone. Once our country started growing, the habit of only speaking when necessary had evolved into a national trait.
What does it mean to be unable to, or uninterested in, keeping up an engaging conversation? A social skill rated so highly in the rest of the world? I think one tangible effect is a fear of asking straight-forward questions – and to be at the receiving end of them. Last week, I interviewed Swedish parents whose whistleblowing (or in some cases, simply voicing critical opinions) has resulted in schools, employers and authorities filing fake complaints with social services against them as acts of revenge. The story resonated with me on a personal level. At parental meetings, I'm often the only one asking, “why is that? Why can't the kids have this or that?”.
Being a lousy conversationalist renders you with less interesting social interactions than a more inquisitive individual. You'll learn less of the world and of other humans. Your horizons will stay static. But let's not forget the more serious consequences of a climate that encourages silence. As an expat in Sweden, you can help lead the way to a chattier, more open society. Don't give up on us if we're a bit slow at first. We'll pick up speed, and we secretly love that you keep us on our toes. Let's talk more, disagree more, ask more questions? Starting today.
Lisa Bjurwald is a Swedish journalist and author covering current affairs, culture and politics since the mid-1990s. Her latest work BB-krisen, on the Swedish maternity care crisis, was dubbed Best reportage book of 2019 by Aftonbladet daily newspaper. She is also an external columnist for The Local – read her columns here. Do you agree or disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments below.