Media and media criticism

In a book dedicated to his colleague and friend Janerik Larsson, Hans Bergström contributed this essay about the tendency among European journalists visiting the US to base reporting primarily on their personal negative preconceptions, instead of trying to discover new aspects. This method of “pre-written stories” is common in journalism. Themes for articles are decided in advance of a trip or an investigation. Among certain journalists, the completely negative description of America is also part of a long tradition of self-loathing in relation to Western civilization.

Almost at any point in time, Swedish press has been dominated by liberal newspapers. Editors from these newspapers gathered in “Vänsterpressföreningen”, which was formed in 1905. As part of its 100-year anniversary, a book was published in which researchers and editors analyzed positions and roles of the liberal press throughout 100 years. The introductory essay was written by Hans Bergstrom. He noted that the liberal press was founded long before the formation of political parties. With “the era of the party press” gone, the liberal press now has to find its purpose and direction once again based on ideas.

This essay was part of an anthology on journalism etc in the wake of the IT crash in the early 2000s. Hans Bergström's contribution discusses the relationship between modern journalism and underlying realities. “It is little understood that the image of reality need not be connected to reality.” One example is the many disclosers of “scandals” among politicians, bureaucrats and corporate leaders. They most likely have more to do with a new type of critical journalism than with any deterioration in ethics among the elites.

From an anthology honoring legendary television journalist Åke Ortmark comes this text, where Hans Bergström argues that Swedish journalism on the whole promotes the perspective of the left, even when the governing power is socialist. The public sector is seen as “good”, companies as bad. People are “victims”, not individuals with their own responsibility. Paradigms like these are so dominant in editorial staff rooms that they are taken for granted, as the “normal” way of looking at the world. They cannot be reasonably explained by anything other than the political views of the journalists themselves.

Tidningsutgivarna, the Swedish association of newspapers, in 2002 appointed a group of editors with the task of formulating a declaration concerning the future of reading. Hans Bergström chaired the group and wrote its main text about the civic role of texts and of reading as a culture. The text emphasized the importance of maintaining the habits and contexts which have built the strong Swedish culture of reading and writing. Schools must, also in a new media environment, actively promote reading and the practice of reading and writing.

In this paper from 2001, presented at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, Hans Bergström asks whether, in the face of an aging population, the print media is taking due notice? An aging society, and the issues that such a changing society brings, should affect the press in many arenas. It presents news as well as the potential to change news values. It affects the use of different media forms through the day. It will have an enormous impact on the economy. It changes living patterns and the most basic family interactions in ways that strongly affect patterns of media consumption. It is perhaps the most important transition to cover during the course of this century. This paper tries to cover an aging society in relation to various aspects of the press: its internal realities, its commercial relations and its public responsibilities.

A public commission published a report in early 2000 on how to maintain and improve democracy in Sweden. “Tidningsutgivarna”, the national association of newspapers, was invited to comment. It did so by inviting several leading editors to reflect upon the subject. Hans Bergstrom formulated his essay as an answer to the question “Why do newspapers and reading remain vitally important also in the era of television and computers?”

The essay defends the importance of the written text also for future years when it is deeply challenged. “A society abandoning reading will find itself on a downslope culturally.” Text and language have deep qualities compared to pictures. In a society with an overflow of messages and information channels, the intellectual sorting and deeper explanation which requires the abstractions offered by language becomes even more important. Newspapers with a strong foundation in values have filled an important role in Sweden as large organizations for processing knowledge. That role can not be cancelled without grave consequences for the quality of our democracy.

This important warning on journalism was published in anthology honoring the legendary editorial writer Nils-Eric Sandberg. Hans Bergström, his chief editor, wrote his contribution as a strong criticism of the tendency not any more to appoint true publicists as editorial leaders. Journalists become reduced to “content providers”, and editors to business leaders. The commercial perspective goes hand in hand with a superficial view of “news”. Both discard the need for intellectual reflection in editorial staffs and a higher purpose. The essay shows evidence of this trend, but also discusses the reasons for it.

In this essay for the moderate magazine Politisk Tidskrift, Hans Bergström gives his critical observations on the effects of changes in media use on culture, civic understanding and democratic maturity. It was written in 1999, when the transformation from text to pictures was about to be followed by an even larger move into the internet society. At the time, one could only speculate about the wider consequences of this latter transformation. The outlook from the then editor of Dagens Nyheter was dominated by a degree of worry and cultural pessimism concerning the new mediated reality.

During the 1990s, a major research project at the University of Gothenburg covered the history of the Swedish press. It resulted in several volumes, as well as many seminars and reports. For the project, Hans Bergström wrote this text about the important role played by the liberal press during the 1800s in lifting Sweden from being one of the poorest countries in Europe to becoming one of the most modern and prosperous. Corruption was eradicated with the help of a scrutinizing press, and Swedes acquired the habit of daily reading, developing in the process the ability as citizens to reflect also upon difficult issues.

In this contribution to a book about the demands for education in “the new knowledge society”, Hans Bergström disputes the view that society has changed so much that schools should abandon traditional truths. Insetad, Hans argues, youngsters still have to be able to read, write and do math, as well as be trained to work in a disciplined way. What is required is rather a rediscovery of proven traditiona values concerning knowledge and norms, after a disastrous period of “progressive pedagogics”.

Olof Santesson is a legendary foreign policy editor at Dagens Nyheter (DN), with its opinion page as his prime forum. Mr. Santesson worked at DN for 42 years, between 1956 and 1998. In an anthology, honoring him upon his retirement, his chief editor at the time, Hans Bergström, wrote this text about the important role played by Olof Santesson also internally at DN. He further reflects upon the special features of foreign policy in a democracy. It tends to be heavily dominated by a network of diplomats and specialists. DN has played an important role in bringing knowledge and debate on foreign policy issues to the wider public.

Lecture: Is media setting the political agenda in Sweden? The rules and role for media in Sweden.


Moscow School of Political Studies, November 1997.

In this text, from a 1996 book in honor of professor Stig Hadenius, Hans Bergström expresses his profound concern for the quality of our democracy the day newspapers vanish or relinquish their role. The editorial pages of a newspaper like Dagens Nyheter can not be described only as a forum for “views”. Staff, columnists and the debate forum together constitute a qualified institution for regular scrutiny of issues and public processes, and for promoting a deeper understanding among citizens. The good democracy cannot be taken for granted; it is under constant danger of disintegrating. It will not survive without structures upholding its norms and habits.

The financial problems in the early 1990s contributed to increased worries over the ability for the political system to handle difficult economic challenges, long-term. The Swedish Royal Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA) published a book in 1994, for which Hans Bergström was invited to analyze media's impact on time horizons in politics and governing. His essay analyzed how a “message inflation” tended to lead to shorter presentations and a new dramaturgy. In this “media twisted reality”, politics becomes more nervous and increasingly shortsighted. The dramaturgic criteria for intake in the media gradually tend to be adapted by career politicians as their criteria for output.

This study from 1994 of the television hearings prior to the 1988 Swedish parliament election is of interest primarily for the methods it developed for analyzing election journalism. It examined the journalistic choices of perspective. The main issues brought up before the election showed to have little relevance for the governing realities after the election. A static perspective of distribution totally dominated over questions on how to achieve dynamic growth. Non-socialist parties were pressed from a leftist perspective, but socialist parties not similarly questioned from the opposite angle. The personal political world view of the journalists had an obvious impact, which points to the need for professional self-reflection.

Hans Bergstrom was in 1994 invited by the Norwegian Academy of Technological Sciences (NTVA) to give a lecture on the logic of natural science versus the media. Hans Bergstrom shows that media logic – with its inclination for drama and simplification – is very different from the thinking that dominates natural science and technology. In a self-critical reflection, he says that journalism should do much more to describe and explain progress in technology. (The lecture was later published in the report “Media and technology”, NTVA report no 3, 1995.)

In 1993, the daily newspaper Nerikes Allehanda in Örebro celebrated its 150 year anniversary. It did so with considerable self-confidence, as the leading regional newspaper in Sweden and with a strong liberal voice. Hans Bergström, who had been its editor a few years earlier, was invited for the anniversary book to give his reflections on the developing media landscape. This resulted in an essay marked by deep worries over the effects of media trends on culture and an enlightened democracy. Reality was becoming ever more complicated, while the media – who's task it is to explain important matters to the public - went more and more simple minded. And this was even at a time before the emergence of “social media”.

For the Danish ”Pressens årbog” 1988 (yearbook of the press), Hans Bergström presented his analysis of the hearings etc in Swedish television during the weeks leading up to the Swedish parliamentary election of 1988. The analysis remains highly relevant for journalism during election campaigns. Questions from journalists were totally dominated by a static redistribution perspective, shared by the left. An even more serious weakness was that the journalists nearly completely missed to bring up the realities which showed to become the most pressing to handle for the government after the election. Television coverage during the campaign provided little understanding for the real issues for governing during the coming four years.