Theater of Cruelty

PFU's technical magnifying glass

The Press's Academic Committee does not consider the ethics of the press, but the technique of the press.


[chronicle] It is blowing around the Press's Professional Committee (PFU), the Norwegian media's self-judgment body, for the time being. Several issues have attracted much attention. Some claim that the PFU is inconsistent and dismisses judgments according to the daily form. In my opinion it is wrong. On the contrary, PFU is very consistent. The committee practices a narrow view of what should be considered press ethical issues, and two of the disputed cases illustrate this well. In one, PFU Bergensavisa fell for the mention of a murder case in Hylkje. Editor Olav Terje Bergo refused to accept the verdict. In the second, the committee rejected five media researchers' complaint about VG's first posting on the Valla / Yssen case ("She bullied me because I got pregnant").

It is a basic ethical norm that it is immoral to inflict harm on others without particularly good reason. But anyone who complains to PFU because he or she thinks the media has unreasonably inflicted damage on a person through negatively angled advertisements, will extremely rarely come forward – unless the journalist has made serious journalistic mistakes. The statements of the Press Professional Committee are mainly about the journalistic craft; that is, whether the cases are reasonably correctly presented, whether the interviewees are correctly quoted, whether the affected party is allowed to respond in a reasonable time, etc.

Not ethical selection.

Therefore, VG was acquitted in the Valla case. Avisa has quoted Ingunn Yssen correctly. Valla has – technically speaking – been given the opportunity to speak. Documentation of the content of the statement beyond the quotation is unnecessary because Yssen is considered reasonably credible. That the newspaper portrayed Valla as a "bully" is not a matter for press ethics, but for freedom of the press. But the basic ethical questions in this case are completely different: Is it acceptable to allow a person to present such strong undocumented personal attacks against named people on the front page? Is it moral to make Valla a one-dimensional "villain" and Yssen a one-dimensional "hero"? These issues are not discussed at all by the Press Professional Committee, precisely because in practice it is a professional, not an ethical, committee.

It has several causes. On the one hand, professional ethics is an exception to public morality. Part of the journalist's job is to torment people. And this right to torment others is justified in the media's rather clearly defined social missions. In part, the media industry dislikes having its journalistic choices investigated on an ethical basis. It will prevail by its "professional independence". It is interesting to note that in the 1950s and 60s, PFU's predecessor, the Professional Committee, delivered a wide range of decisions criticizing angles and priorities. Today, the PFU consistently states that the editors were fully entitled to address a topic or engage in favor of this or that. This is a consequence of the fact that journalism has built up as an independent profession with relatively high cigarettes.

On the one hand, the PFU system is not able to decide what is right and wrong. Neither the Norwegian Press Association nor the PFU has the investigative capacity or the police authority. The committee therefore does not formally take a position on whether Yssen or Valla is right, but is content to state that both parties are somewhat upbeat and have a say. By the way, PFU does the same fairly consistently in all such cases – even if one party is unequivocally portrayed as a "villain". The problem is that the person who is made a villain in a media story, often has little pleasure in having a say. "Everyone knows" that villains like to lie.

Protect vulnerable people.

The PFU compensates for the lack of ability and willingness to distinguish right from wrong, in assessing the ability of the interfered persons to withstand public beating. In practice, today, only particularly vulnerable people have protection against negative publicity or direct media coverage. Sven Egil Omdal, former leader of both the Norwegian Journalist Team and the Press's Academic Committee, says:

“It is true that the press ethics previously included a much stronger concern for the institutions of society than is expressed today. (…) Today, children, suicides, people in shock or grief and other very vulnerable groups have specific protection in the poster. ”

This protection is practiced strictly and consistently by the PFU. Bergensavisen was fielded by the committee for its discussion of the Hylkje case because it could harm the children. When Bergo refuses to accept the verdict because the PFU is conducting "sighting", it just means that he has not followed the hour. For the time being, PFU bases much of its ethical credibility on defending children and other particularly vulnerable individuals from publicity that can be harmful.

But in return, the committee accepts almost every mention of normally upstanding people. If you are white, middle-aged and without mental health problems, you are pretty much without a chance in PFU, regardless of power and rank. Football coaches at mini teams, homeowners at Romerike and concert organizers in Oslo can all be hung out if certain technical requirements are met. Ethical considerations are nothing to the press's ethical self-justification scheme.

Otherwise, a thorough review of one year's commissions from the committee shows that

  • journalism's choice (and opt-out) of topics (except privacy) is not a theme for PFU
  • journalism's choice of "framing" and angling are not the subject of PFU
  • journalism's choice of sources (except the right of reply) is not the subject of PFU.

Journalist questions?

The most important ethical issues that journalists come into contact with daily, namely what should I write about, how should I angle this story and who should I turn to hero and villain are therefore not part of the formalized press ethics. On the contrary, these choices are made for purely journalistic questions. PFU refers to the freedom of the press and repeatedly reiterates that the XY magazine was "in its full right to" take up the topic and / or frame the case as they wished.

This view is reflected in the industry's views in the public debate: Discussions about priorities, choice of topics, choice of sources and angles are dismissed with the phrase "we have made a journalistic assessment", which is meant to tell people that they should shut up.

It hardly holds. Norwegian journalism has acquired one of the world's most independent self-judgments. It is the result of a kind of pact between changing governments and press organizations. The authorities fail to pass a law for the press, which they have in Denmark, and drop all proposals for a public press ombudsman, which they have in Sweden. In return, the press should take care of its ethical justice. The least you can then demand is that the press is willing to discuss its ethical justice with us others.

You may also like