The Impact of Digital Media on Sweden
By Henrik Ornebring
Sweden is a highly connected, internet-savvy country that still has a high rate of newspaper readership and a strong local and regional press. For these reasons, it offers an intriguing test case for studying the impact of media digitization on journalism and democracy.
The Open Society report Mapping Digital Media: Sweden does a good job of highlighting the unique structural and historical features of the Swedish political and media landscapes (e.g., long-term political stability, the social democratic political consensus, the homogenous population).
So it is all the more striking that many of the concerns that have emerged around digital media and journalism are the same as in many other countries:
- that clickstream-focused online media are driving tabloidization, sensationalism and celebrity-focused news
- that the changing working practices of journalists (about half of all Swedish journalists now work with online publishing either daily or several times a week) are encouraging quantity over quality
- that public service media are being gradually but inexorably weakened.
The fact that Swedish journalists have started from a “better” position than those in many other countries does not seem to make them less worried about the future.
Of particular interest to me as a journalism scholar working in cross-national comparative research is how digitization impacts journalism, especially investigative journalism. The report rightly identifies investigative journalism as the paradigmatic, ideal idealized, even genre of journalism.
However, Sweden is one of the few countries where we have data which confirm that investigative journalism is actually quite rare. The report cites a 2002 content analysis of Swedish election coverage: only 1 percent of election news could be considered investigative.
This points to the need to keep concerns over the supposed decline of quality journalism in perspective: investigative journalism has always formed a minuscule part of Swedish journalism as a whole, and digitization seems to have had little or no measurable impact—positive or negative.
Political communication is also changing in the digital era. One of the most important observations being that it is not changing as quickly as many commentators want to believe. Online and social media platforms still play a rather marginal role.
The role of the so-called “party selectors,” a feature on news organization websites during election campaigns, represents another interesting development. Party selectors are an online feature where users answer questions on political issues and preferences in order to get a prediction or suggestion of which party best fits their preferences. It would be valuable to see comparative data on this, in order to assess whether such online tools play a role in other countries as well.
Henrik Ornebring is a senior research fellow at the European Studies Centre, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, and was previously Axess research rellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.