OPINION: Are Swedish reporters lousy at asking follow-up questions?

Swedish journalist Lisa Bjurwald wonders if a historic lack of social skills has led to a reluctance among her fellow reporters to hold power to account.

OPINION: Are Swedish reporters lousy at asking follow-up questions?
Are journalists asking enough follow-up questions at press conferences? Photo: Ali Lorestani/TT

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.

A queue of reporters lined up to talk to state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell at a Covid-19 press conference. Photo: Ali Lorestani/TT

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.

Member comments

  1. Ah, but that’s why we need your help to change! So sorry you’ve been given the Icy Swede treatment 🙁 Warm regards, Lisa B.

  2. I am SO glad you wrote this Lisa, thank you!! As a former journalist myself, I have been really surprised at how the Swedish media seems very…accepting of the answers they are given. I am not asking for News Corp style “gotcha” journalism (not that I consider that journalism) but a bit more incisive questioning and critical analysis would be very welcome.

    Having said that, being critical or “chattier” can be socially dangerous, especially as foreigners. But the main thing is it makes you feel very isolated and removed from Swedish culture, which I guess in some ways we are. The “åsiktskorridor” is real.

  3. I live in California, so here is American view.
    I am very disappointed with USA reporters who just pass on what our politicians say. I am pleasantly surprised with BBC reporters who do not let interviewee’s get away with lying.

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

By far the most common recurring Christmas story reflects Sweden’s guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
Glad Påsk!
Midsommar drowning  
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.