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I used to be a critic of public service media for a long time. Or – I still am, by the way. What I have changed my mind about, however, is the media landscape in general. Today I believe that all media are, more or less, lost. However, I do think that it may still be possible to save public service media. With regard to other media outlets I’m not so sure.
The very idea of public service media in Sweden is to ensure that all members of the public have access to high-quality, factual and educational information covering all aspects of society, even those that would not be commercially viable of coverage on an open and competitive market. To provide correct knowledge regarding the state of things is cultivating the seed of democracy, is the general idea.
However, many have criticized the public service offering on various grounds. Some say its scope is too wide, others that it is too narrow, and others still that it is too expensive or that it is advancing or pushing a political agenda. Another critique is that public service media displaces the pluralism of the free market, which would otherwise ensure that all perspectives are heard. Sure, you can discuss the breadth of the mission and how relevant it is to hang on to the big overcoat of entertainment productions that act as padding to the core mission statement of public education, but I’ll stick to talking about the news and the reflection of society created by the news. Because I think that is what most people – including the people working in public service – consider to be the very tip of the needle on the syringe that injects public education into the body of society.
Because the problem is that it is entertainment all the way through.
The news sounds the alarm about everything
That the producers of television news generally do not provide a reasonable picture of reality is a thesis I pursue in the book SKIPPA NYHETERNA (Skip the News). It is, I think, something that many can agree with. The news rushes wildly around and sounds the alarm about anything and everything that is currently going wrong in the Now. Everything else that might be going on is lost in the silence.
The reason the news behaves in this way is that we, the consumer, are the way we are. We are drawn by our very nature to what is happening now, to the surprises and the chocks that make a good, easy-to-understand story. We get caught up in the danger and the drama, and we take the news more seriously if it manages to trigger a stress response. Most news outlets focus on creating a form of horror entertainment out of the news for the simple reason that it pulls in more readers, listeners, and viewers. The consequence of this is that not only does news reporting provide us with bad information; it also makes us pessimistic, frightened, and more prone to be driven by impulsive behavior (a topic that I further discuss and deepen in the book).
Now, if accurate knowledge of the state of things is really the seeds of democracy, what can one reap from sowing the seeds of fear?
In June of 2022 a research review on public service in Sweden found no support for a left or right bias in public service reporting. However, there was evidence of a clear media shift: just like commercial news outlets, public service was shown to favor actors, questions and problem formulations that match with the priorities of media logic in general. The conclusion was also that the journalism in SVT (Swedish public service television) and TV4 (an independent television broadcaster) have become more similar over time, and that public and private news media interact to stimulate and increase the consumption of news in the population.
They simply seem to be two peas in a pod, all workers at the news factory assembly line, regardless of who is footing the bill – and public service television is tweaking its news with the same tools as the rest of them. Not to forward any particular angle, but to engage the consumer.
Could we survive without public service media?
If public service is just as bad as everyone else, would we be better off without it? Well, maybe. Perhaps we’d get access to the same amount of news anyways (for better or worse)? In the US it works pretty well as there is an abundance of news media outlets, some pretty good and some downright deplorable. The difference, in regard to Sweden, is that we are quite few in our specific language area, making the basis on which to report about the world much smaller.
Let’s use the ”Current Events” section of Wikipedia as an example. This is a section where current- and ongoing events are linked to Wikipedia articles that provide both background and in-depth information. The English language version of this works great, the Swedish language version, however, leads a waning, sporadic existence as the number of users and editors just aren’t nearly big enough.
Regardless, a fair public service media should not participate in a media game that leaves us all less informed.
The general state of news media will only get better if we, the consumers, get better at consuming media. If we learn to collectively order news with an emphasis on sober thought and analysis rather than promoting the quick fix that tickles our taste for drama. It might happen eventually, but don’t hold your breath waiting. We must not forget that the need to be entertained is at the core of being human. We have a need to be stimulated by dramatic stories. The problem is not the need for entertainment as such, but rather the blurred lines between news storytelling and public education that make us think that we are learning about the world whilst being spoon-fed a news broth made up of menacing nonsense.
Somewhere in this, there is a suitable mission for a better functioning public service news media. It needs to get boring. More boring than everyone else. So boring that it stops time. That is the only way public service media can come to justify its own existence.
In this ideal state, public service news would have a unique voice. It has the potential to make more good the less it competes with other news outlets. It wouldn’t waste resources creating content that will be readily made available anyways, it wouldn’t use taxpayers' money to compete with corporate or free media. Public service should be there to serve the public and the common good in an area that is critical for democracy, an area where our own instincts lead us astray and where all other actors are lost. This is where public service could make a real difference.
Boring news would engage fewer viewers, but the role of public service should not be to create and drive engagement. Everyone else is already doing that based on the simple fact that we want to consume engaging news. The role of public service should give us not what we ask for, but rather that which we need.
So, what could this look like in practice?
You won’t know what happened until after the fact
News in public service media should reflect what has happened and what we know as value-neutral as possible and by providing verified, qualitative information. The problem – and the most troubling aspect of news in general – is that it is impossible to ensure the quality of information until what is happening has actually happened. It is this inconsistency between events and verified information that makes News.
What it all boils down to – what causes us to stress out, the reason why the news is so often wrong and drives a narrative of speculation rather than substance – is the cranked-up pace. The need for speed in reporting means that news outlets compete not to be the best at reporting, but to be the first to report. Due to this need to be first, basically all news reporting takes place from within an impenetrable fog of war.
It is this constant focus on always staying on top of the latest events that trick us into updating the news pages or apps every thirty minutes. We want to be there when it happens, out on the front line, because the signals sent to us from the media is that the latest thing popping up on the radar always trumps everything else. The news producers meet our natural curiosity by broadcasting live even though no one really knows anything that can’t be summed up in 30 seconds or less. Regardless, they broadcast live hour after hour. There’s no wonder there is speculation, there’s no wonder the reporting devolves into pure fiction when no one knows what the actual facts are. It is easy to imagine that Putin would be deposed more quickly if you reload the webpage more often. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works.
Being the slowest is not really that bad
A better and more reasonable public service should not be the fastest to report on an event. They shouldn’t even try to be. They should make a point out of being the slowest, to calmly take their time in finding out the actual facts and events and then publish their findings. That would send a much-needed signal to the media consumers. We don’t have to partake in news in real-time. In fact, one might formulate an uncertainty principle of the news: the closer to real-time we follow the world, the less informed we become.
In my vision, the news programs and the current event debate format be lifted from the table entirely and be replaced by a monthly or bi-weekly program that presents the news in a format of what has, actually, happened. Imagine a program in the style of the year in review, looking back at what happened and the consequences. These programs could be aired monthly or bi-weekly, presenting an investigative factual summary in retrospect. When the fog of the event has cleared and you actually know what has happened. Instead of reporting on the Current, a report on the Verified.
More boring. But more true. Information as an anchor in reality. It would also probably cost less and funds could be diverted from the public service and be provided to local or regional newspapers to publish content without paywalls. But that is another question for another time.
The main point is this: when other news media goes bananas, as they do, one would, in my vision, go to public service news to get a picture grounded in reality as a counterweight to mainstream media. Slow and steady wins the race, like the tortoise in Aesop’s fable.
Tobias Wahlqvist with help from Tomas Söderlund. Translation by Jimmy Forsman.