Annual Report 2009

Opinions in the Age of New Media

The new Openness by Knut Olav Åmås

  • Culture- and op-ed editor Aftenposten, Oslo

Current debate on social affairs and culture

Public debate in Norway is extremely dynamic,
open and democratic. But there is still a great imbalance between who does and who does not take part in Norwegian public spheres. Important groups have been more or less invisible.

The new Openness

There are differences of opinion between the Norwegian self-image on the one hand, ie. those who consider Norway a demagogic, rebellious country with
diverging opinions, where everybody can take criticism and speak out, a country which goes its own way and will not be forced into the conformal, streamlined Europe - and on the other hand the real Norway, characterised by the Jante Law, very touchy when it comes to criticism and with little headroom for open debate where people can agree to differ amicably.
Today, as in 1933 when the writer Aksel Sandemose put it into words, the Jante Law renders a fair picture of Norwegian mentality. The ten tenets law, published in the novel "En flyktning krysser sitt spor" (A fugitive crosses his tracks), gives according to Sandemose a fair picture of "man's innate wickedness and ability to oppress his fellowman". It is the recipe for how to keep people with different opinions down and how to cultivate conformity and consensus. It is an attitude seen today in integration policy when we don't spontaneously like the "stranger" struggling to find a footing amongst us.


The Jante Law says;
1. You shall not think that you are special.
2. You shall not think that you are as worthy as us.
3. You shall not think that you are wiser than us.
4. You shall not imagine that you are better than us.
5. You shall not think that you know more than us.

 Knut Olav Åmås is Culture
and Op-Ed Editor in Aftenposten.
He started out in the
paper as a part-time commentator
in 2005 and was made
op-ed editor in 2006. In October
2008 he became head of
the culture and debate section
of the paper. He was awarded
Den store journalistprisen in
2007 for his achievement as
commentator and editor and
for having created a more
dynamic and interesting current
debate on social affairs in
Norway. Knut Olav Åmås
majored in philosophy and has
a PhD in media science from
the University of Bergen. He
has written or edited a dozen
books, among them Det stille
alvoret (The Quiet Seriousness),
Ludwig Wittgenstein i
Norge (Ludwig Wittgenstein
in Norway 1913-1950) 1994,
Norsk homoforskning
(Lesbian and gay research in
Norway) 2001, Mitt liv var
draum (My life was dream)
2004, Verdien av uenighet
(The value of disagreement).
Debatt og dissens i Norge
(Debate and dissension in
Norway) 2007, Hvem er
hvem (Who is who) 2008 and
Norge, en diagnose (Norway,
a diagnosis) 2008.

6. You shall not think that you are greater than us.
7. You shall not think that you are good at anything.
8. You shall not laugh at us.
9. You shall not think that we care about you.
10. You shall not think that you can teach us anything.
The former agricultural nation - where the independent smallholder, living at
a safe distance from his nearest neighbours, was the ideal - is still a country of diverging opinions. Norwegian terms often seem to be the only legitimate terms for discussing Norwegian affairs. Only seldom are we capable of seeing ourselves from the outside, although we are so narcissistic that foreigners' description and characterisation of the Norwegian race is a favourite topic in Norwegian media. I am tempted to rewrite former prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland's (Labour Party) national slogan in connection with the Olympic Games in Lillehammer; "It's typically Norwegian to be good" to "It's good to be typically Norwegian".
In some ways, this is the self-awareness of a country describing itself as a "humanitarian power", as a "world champion in aid" and as a country wishing (despite a strong structural discrimination of, for example, the handicapped and ethnic minorities) to be "the world's most inclusive society", according to prime minister Jens Stoltenberg (Labour Party) in his New Year's address to the nation. Norwegian self-image is self-awareness within a kindness regime, as the historian Terje Tvedt put it.
We love the state so much that any criticism of the expansive welfare state is regarded as a destructive attack on collective problem solving. Therefore initiating and following through hard, critical discussions of how welfare schemes and the health and social sector function can be difficult because calling attention to problems is interpreted as resistance to public welfare in general. Love of the state may explain some of the mentality which can still make it trying - or maybe mostly strange - to show or thematise or discuss one's religiousness in the public sphere in Norway, whether one is Catholic, low church Protestant or Muslim. The reason for this is that we have a public religious system, a State church which takes care of our faith and our philosophy of life! Religion is a task for the state - even though the state-controlled Church is slowly being disestablished.
With this background it is striking how powerful and great the will to discuss is in a country like Norway. The number of emails to print media and the website debates show this in full measure. But the yearning for consensus and conformity is also strong. Being anxious about criticism is an integral part of our general mentality, we curb our feelings and we want to push any unpleasantness or conflicts under the carpet instead of facing them squarely.
Norwegians often become anxious if people get angry about what somebody says, and if a debate engages a great many people. They fear that something is going wrong. This mentality dominated the controversy over the Mohammad cartoons which were first published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005. There are strong forces - religious and others - that want to limit the public sphere to this kind of expression. But «A human society without conflict would be a society not of friends, but of ants,» wrote the Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies. Powerful meetings and clashes between values, principles and visions have been the driving force behind development of society - in Norway as well - and many solutions have been negotiated with the assistance of discussions in the public sphere.
So let's get back to who is and who is not present in the public sphere in Norway. In my paper, Aftenposten, we have tried to rectify the imbalance with regard to who takes part in the public debate - that applies to ethnic minorities as well as to other groups which have kept in the background - but we still have a long way to go. Diversity in the columns is a daily struggle and a problem.
There are a number of groups whose interest we consider it particularly important to arouse, thereby enabling them to take an active part in the current debate on social affairs. I have already mentioned ethnic minorities. Close to ten per cent of Norway's population have an ethnic minority background and the integration debate is given high priority by politicians, organisations, media and the general public alike. However, ethnic minority persons' own opinions have been absent in many media. They are often used as a case in news reporting, but mostly only in restricted cases, ie. when the subject is their own situation as a minority. And most often the main point has been quite problematising. We are therefore pleased to see that over the last few years new and completely different minority writers have appeared on the scene, among them the medical student Mohammad Usman Rana (who won Aftenposten's essay competition in 2009 with his piece on "secular extremism in Norway"), the Norwegian-Syrian writer Sara Azmeh Rasmussen and the IT entrepreneur Shahzad Rana - people who have become national opinion leaders in their fields.
Of other groups in that part of Norwegian society which we have tried to give column space to over the last few years, I should like to mention young people. As the first Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten
has since 2005 had a much read and talked about page called Si ;D ("Say It" in Norwegian), where young people can discuss issues of importance to them. Others include people with psychiatric problems and prison inmates as well as religious groups outside the Norwegian State church, whether they are Christians or belong to other religious groups. Even in an egalitarian country like Norway, with a relatively "weak" capital city, it has been a challenge to draw people and groups from outside Oslo and outwith the élite of the capital's decision-making circles to the columns to express their opinions in writing.
There are another two groups in society which do not come under the general term "minorities", but which in practice are just that when it comes to participation in the current debate on social affairs. Here we have also tried to work systematically during the last few years;
Firstly, it is necessary to open up our newspaper columns to the opinions and writings of ordinary members of society to a greater extent. (The debates that have taken place on websites in the last few years have been a source of inspiration to the printed press.) Giving ordinary, unknown citizens space in our paper has in a number of cases lead to contact with publishing houses and lately also to the publishing of their books. The Oslo-based grandmother Tove Steinbo is an example of this, she published
a book titled Hva er galt med Norge? (What is wrong with Norway?) prior to the
parliamentary elections in 2009.
Secondly, the balance between the sexes in the Norwegian public sphere must be improved, there is still a significant, marked imbalance in this field. An opinion poll conducted by Retriever, a media monitoring firm, in the summer of 2009 showed that Aftenposten was the "best" of the major newspapers with
28 per cent women represented in the opinion pages over a period, while both the tabloids, VG and Dagbladet, had only half of that. The result is not much to brag about for either of the papers. Although the situation reflects a deeper trend in the current debate on social affairs, and although women are in fact much less active on their own initiative and say no thank you more often when asked to participate, I don't think we can avoid this; It is the responsibility of the media and the editors, in their capacity as gate keepers, as directors of a significant part of what takes place in the public sphere, to compensate this imbalance. Even if one might think there is something in the more or less speculative hypotheses that women are less conflict-oriented and less polarising, and that they will therefore at times evade the media logic of strong current debates on social affairs, we cannot get away from the fact that the imbalance is untenable. The uninvited texts we receive every day show exactly the same imbalance. Therefore we must also ask; Do any of the debates filling our pages seem particularly irrelevant to women? How can we visibly change that situation in a short period of time? The fact is that neither we nor our critics are willing to allow us much time.
In Aftenposten we have tried to meet the challenge and do something about the imbalance by setting down a definite goal; Each week we shall have at least 40 per cent of either sex on print in the opinion pages. That means that we must think twice every time we accept or reject an article and we must be more aggressive in acquiring - ie. requesting - articles. We are, as I write this, also considering inviting readers to take part in an essay competition for women only. The idea will probably be debated and consequently spotlight the gender imbalance in the Norwegian public sphere.
What are the strategies we have been using over the last few years to enlarge and diversify the debating and trend-setting media sphere with regard to external voices? There is no hocus-pocus about this, only systematic work has given definite results - though not as good as we had hoped. But then there is not just one solution, but a whole package of measures which collectively must bring about changes. Let me point out some of them;
We must take the initiative to visit the groups we want to reach - get in touch with them, be curious about them, find out who those we communicate with know and thus try to discover what "turns on" the milieu and where its foremost interests lie. It is also necessary to actively take part in society, especially outside the journalistic
circles and the news world, and to be a visible representative of one's medium. Say yes when asked to make introductions or give talks in communities which might have something to contribute with, get your name on the mailing lists of as many institutions and organisations as possible and keep a close eye on their websites. The first premise of creating more exciting public spheres is a broad base of ideas, and that is also a prerequisite to be able to gather and shape the public spheres through editorial strategies and will-power.
Some people come back, time and again, by themselves, and they are always ready to capture a place in the public sphere - while others have to be enticed, cultivated and helped forward. They may have to be motivated to take part in the first instance, and their writings will have to be re-read and re-edited a number of times. It is vital to use the necessary resources - and to look carefully at the untidy and incomplete manuscripts which editorial offices receive unasked on a daily basis. There are many unpolished pearls to be found there. They don't shine of their own accord.
Being successful in finding a few voices from a minority group, you will be pleased to notice a self-strengthening trend; When a group gets noticed a little, that leads to the same group getting noticed even more. Once you have published material from one community, there will be more coming from similar communities. It's the cumulative effect.
It is also my experience that it is very important to be visible in the debate section, to give people someone they can identify themselves with. That way it is an advantage to be op-ed editor and commentator at the same time - and thus be a visible participant in the current debate on social affairs. Occasionally though, one of our readers questions whether one person should be in charge of both sections, because then you will have to say yes or no to debate contributions which you, as an opinion maker, either agree with or disagree with. That cannot be avoided when you are the gate keeper, and it is objections that sharpen your ability to evaluate. So it is important to face the discussions about priority and the profile of the paper, in the columns, in print and on the websites. Aftenposten has a weekly Leserforum (a readers' debating forum) where the readers can get answers and comments to any questions they may have as to how we think and what our priorities are. It is particularly important to allow opinions contrary to the paper's own editorials and the viewpoints of its commentators.
So why should we make newspaper content more diverse? Because the media has a spotlight function bringing some things out into the open while others are hidden in the shadows. Because debates can influence the forming of opinions and politics, ie. influence what kind of society we get. Then what is included and what is excluded matters. The democratic mobilisation for public discussions thus becomes one of the most important community functions the media can undertake to fill. And that is why the public spheres must aim to be more representative and reflective. Although the Norwegian current debate on social affairs is relatively egalitarian and open, it is still somewhat top-heavy at times. Making it really broad, which we have tried to do in Aftenposten, might reduce the gap between what Thorbjørn Jagland (Labour Party), Speaker of the Norwegian Parliament at the time, in an op-ed essay not long ago called "the media-constructed reality" and "the real reality" - ie. the reality most people can identify themselves with. Then we can succeed in bringing more stories from peoples' everyday lives, about normality, about all the things that function in society and culture, about the successes - in the middle of our dominating media logic which is constructively conflict-seeking and problem-oriented.
These are the reasons why it is actually significant who does write - because those who write determine what is being said and how it is said. And in some instances, who does the writing is crucial for anything to be written at all, not least when it comes to spotlighting taboo subjects in Norwegian society, such as loneliness, ADHD, prostitution, mental illness, different kinds of abuse and abortion - examples of discussions of a socio-political character which have been important to us over the last few years.
The dream of a culture and op-ed editor is to receive a strong, personal text, debating a fundamentally important subject, from an unknown person who knows how to write. We always accept material from individuals - never from organised groups. We never accept a text because it represents a group, but because the text, written by one or more individuals, is well written and significant.
And we do receive manuscripts - they flood our email inbox every day, all year round. On an annual basis we get as many as 30 000 texts to our main sections only. Approximately 100 texts come daily to the "letters to the editor" section, while half of that comes to the youth section, Si ;D. In all our formats we try to find a balance between texts which create debate and texts which can stand alone as knowledge-based information. Around nine out of ten texts are refused every day due to lack of space, but we are in the process of obtaining a higher degree of first publication on the internet of material not included in our printed publications. In order to tempt an even greater number of serious debaters to take part in the web discussions, we are experimenting with forums requiring people to give their full name to write. We must continue to improve the website debates - they contribute vastly to making the current debate on social affairs more lively and vibrating, despite the fact that also net-based groups have their "élites" and regulars. Anyway, I am convinced that any debate, including the web debate, gets better when moderated, edited and actively nursed and cultivated.
Sure enough, there is a lot of rationality in the social media's collective responsibility for editing, but when everybody can be their own editor, and almost no one understands what it involves, someone must take charge. We who work in newspapers must take control and ensure that the best web debates are to be found on our websites. We must, through the efforts of our staff and the "rating" of our readers, employ more resources to continually moderate and strengthen the web debates by separating the good material from the poor.
This can all be done. By doing it, the web debates will get better and contribute to raising the quality of the print debates. At the same time we let the best qualities of the print debates influence the web debates. We will see new ways of interaction between printed papers and the web in the time to come - especially in connection with how we take part in and use social media like Twitter. As culture and op-ed editor, I weekly receive ideas and input from Twitter which become stories and articles, and I use this social medium to give a cross section of culture and debate in the paper.
Being a competent navigator in the information society nowadays does not only mean to add on to and add on to, it also means to be selective and to deduct. The need to give the public thoroughly edited and carefully prepared debates is one part of this picture. It also means that we shouldn't just function as a mailbox, we should actively compensate the imbalances which are to be found in our in trays. If not, the discussions would be more elitist and top-heavy than what they are today - even though the current debate on social affairs is more dynamic and egalitarian in Norway than in any other country I know of. If that's not the case on TV, it certainly is so in the papers. This means that it is actually necessary to weed out some male executives over fifty living in Oslo. It is necessary to weed out some of the obvious lobbyists and those who communicate with public authority representatives only - over the heads of the readers.
Over the last few years we have done a lot to improve the opinion pages, and we have been successful, but we still have to make the articles in the opinion pages broader and more unexpected, socially as well as geographically. In fact; Offer space to those who see Norway from a different angle than what the journalists do, who write differently, whose texts cannot be cut from the end of the manuscript, and who use different words when talking about the new Norway which is emerging.
At first glance this might seem trivial and un-controversial, but it is nothing of the kind. In Aftenposten we have faced and we are still facing opposition and are criticised for some of what we do to create a greater diversity in the opinion writings. We are accused of being "politically correct" and of discrimination which obviously must impair the quality. Call it discrimination if you like - the point is to set down definite, binding goals for diversity, whether it concerns gender or whether there are other factors involved. And the enforced diversity does not impair quality - there are more than enough new voices out there. We just have to find them.
It is at the same time clear that to recruit new pens and faces to the public sphere does create problems. For one thing, they must learn to write and to communicate their messages in
an efficient, accessible and engaging way. Another thing is the fact that new groups often involve themselves in issues of
conflict and polarised discussions which can make it quite taxing to stand up in the public sphere with opinions and evaluations. Then, the thing is to make new writers see it this way: they have to don a suit of armour and play a role, fill a function in the public sphere - so that they don't get the feeling that it is them personally who are at stake. That makes it easier for them to handle fierce discussions, in which one often is abused and misunderstood. It takes time to get used to this, even for the more experienced commentators. It is, however, among our most essential duties as media people - to expose, not hide, conflicts. Conflict is normal, it is not wrong. It is in any case demanding for an individual to be in the middle of a debate on, for example, religion or gender, which always brings out strong feelings and high temperatures. Some who experience this, take fright and back out. We have seen that in connection with Norwegian Muslims and Norwegian Jews - both groups have had a hard time in the public sphere lately.
Nevertheless, although a debate can be very polarised and fierce in the short term, it almost always turns out to be constructive in the long term. So we have to grin and bear it, and make our writers do the same. In the capacity of editor, it is important to be supportive and to offer advice.
Aftenposten's debates, which have become more open, have had an impact on other Norwegian newspapers. We are being copied and imitated - and are proud of it. This is happening at a time when more and more Norwegian media give more and more space to debate and employ their own debate editors. For some newspapers which don't have a lot of resources, the external opinion writings become a "cheap" way of filling the pages of their papers. It is not so for the rest of us - on the contrary. The material is demanding to work with for those with ambitions to leave a mark on society. The editing requires considerable resources in connection with linguistics, checking of facts and adaptation. Contact with other editorial offices to get them to follow up debate articles with reportage is also time-consuming, as is the interaction between web and paper. But there are advantages.
One advantage with opinion articles is the fact that they have potential to function
as media criticism - by their subjects, style or simply because they have not been written by journalists or editors - especially when the debate articles go against the streamlined and the expected. We who work in the media are dearly in need of media criticism from the outside world, in no way are we or anyone else in the business able to do that ourselves. And we are not even duly thankful for this criticism. Media environments are often very thin-skinned when it comes to criticism, a spinal reflex says that someone wants to take charge and censor. Yes, there are definitely those who wish to direct us who work in the media, but most people only wish to openly discuss, criticise and influence. To accept media criticism and give it column space, in fact to cultivate it, is the responsibility of the media. Criticism reduces the danger of abuse of power, and it enhances the possibility of more media getting a stronger vote of confidence from their readers, viewers and listeners. Not the other way around, as some seem to believe.
That is why it is so important that we in Norwegian media regularly and with a critical eye discuss the picture we paint of minority groups thoroughly - otherwise we will lose what we have gained by making them take active part in the current debate on social affairs. It is for instance striking to see how many more of the Norwegian Muslims take part in the public debate in this last round of the cartoon controversy compared to four years ago, in 2006. There are many new voices, many more spokesmen, not to mention more people who speak for themselves only. This is a good sign. Besides, conflicts and disagreements have come out in the open in Muslim and other minority environments, so that media has now for example stopped talking about "the Muslim environment" in the singular. This progress and the change have led to a more nuanced debate, but it is still a difficult one.
However, it is still a problem in the interaction between media and ethnic minority people that many of them are labelling themselves by wanting to write about religion and integration only. Integration into Norwegian society will have come a long way when minorities take part as citizens in discussions on any subject.
Consequently, we who work in the media business should signal that we do not primarily want to hear the most extreme voices of the minority groups, but that we should like to hear the voices of those who are well-informed, wise and representative. I think the fact that we have not been able to communicate this is one of the reasons for ethnic minorities nearly always blaming media's destructive function in debates concerning integration and religion. I have myself observed this in a number of discussions, in and outside the columns.
We must convey that the columns are actually open to more than those who with the greatest ease occupy them. A new and surprising problem which has emerged lately is the forming of clearly defined opinion élites even in the ethnic minority environments in Norway. It is of course a sign of integration that élites are formed - but it is also a signal for the media to search further and wider. There are lots of young,
Norwegian men with a Pakistani background out there. But where are the Christian African women? And where are the Hindus? Where are the Vietnamese, one of the most successfully integrated groups in Norway?
It is going be one of my most difficult tasks as culture and op-ed editor to increase further participation of ethnic minority persons in the media in order for them and society's majority groups together to make future central debates more relevant and realistic; Debates about value and identity, about who we are and who we wish to be, debates about religion and society where traditional thinking is opposed to reformed faith and secular thinking in several religions, discussions about schools and higher education and the development of the entire knowledge society, the great political-economic debate about what we are to live on in the next few decades and our place in international society.
My experience as an editor tells me that many readers are getting pretty fed up with the media cultivating celebrities, with unordinary people relating their very ordinary stories in weekend editions and magazines. The readers would rather that ordinary people relate unordinary stories - or simply ordinary stories. The same goes for what the readers themselves write in the opinion pages and in the other external culture pages.
Journalism is to be in opposition. Journalism is to expose conflicts and problems in society so that they can be resolved and dealt with. Journalism is to see. The question then is what do we see. Journalism is to use words. That is the impotence of journalism. But it is also its power. Because words are action - sometimes constructive, at other times not quite so constructive. They are unfortunately often of no importance whatsoever. That is the greatest danger of journalism - the enormous production of text that isn't read. Because information is not knowledge, and there is not a good journalistic language which is independent of knowledge. It is absolutely decisive to realise this, especially in connection with the debates about values and identity that lie ahead.
As the writer Jens Bjørneboe said shortly before he died; "What is most important for a writer today is to get words to have meaning again".
That challenge also applies to the significant external contributions to opinion-forming journalism.