Tabloid wars – the Nordic episode

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Erkki Vettenniemi
Department of History and Ethnology, University of Jyväskylä


Antti Laine

Urheilujournalismin Suomi–Ruotsi-maaottelu: Vertaileva tutkimus suomalaisten ja ruotsalaisten iltapäivälehtien Ateenan 2004 ja Torinon 2006 olympiauutisoinnista
403 sidor, hft., ill.
Helsinki: Editia 2011
ISBN 978-951-37-6154-7


It does not augur well for any nonfictional text, let alone a dissertation, that the very first paragraph of the introduction contains factual errors – in this case, two blunders. Titled Urheilujournalismin Suomi–Ruotsi-maaottelu (‘A Match in Sports Journalism between Finland and Sweden’), Antti Laine’s PhD thesis is chiefly concerned with twenty-first century tabloid journalism. The introduction, however, starts out with a litany of more distant incidents in which the two Nordic countries’ interests allegedly clashed. Among other things, the author insists that Swedish sports authorities plotted against Paavo Nurmi, the famed Finnish long-distance runner and nine-time Olympic champion, and that as a result of such schemes Nurmi was declared a professional athlete in 1932.

As a mitigating circumstance I should hasten to repeat that Laine’s monograph is not about sport history as such. His comparative study looks into the Olympic coverage of the two Finnish tabloids, Ilta-Sanomat and Iltalehti, and the two Swedish tabloids, Aftonbladet and Expressen. The author has chosen to focus on the 2004 Athens Games and the 2006 Winter Games hosted by Turin, a decision that, at first sight, may seem slightly problematic. One would have expected – well, I would have expected – a dissertation to tackle a period spanning at least a few Olympiads. What ultimately matters, of course, is not the scope but the depth of discussion, and Laine certainly succeeds in justifying his choice. Indeed, nothing would have prevented him from selecting a single newspaper issue, or the sports supplement of that issue, and penning a full-fledged monograph about it.

In the long and occasionally tortuous history of Swedish-Finnish relations, the odds have often been heavily tilted in favour of the kingdom. The topic at hand is no exception to this rule. As the author’s expert review of the two countries’ recent media history bears out, the Swedish tabloids have benefitted from a fierce rivalry for the past half-century or so. In Finland, Ilta-Sanomat is celebrating its eightieth anniversary this year, but Iltalehti, established in 1980, has been able to provide truly stimulating competition only since the late 1990s. Many deficiencies, or, to use neutral terminology, differences that may be interpreted as deficiencies of the Finnish tabloids vis-à-vis the Swedish ones can be explained by this basic fact. One should also bear in mind the bigger financial resources that Swedish media houses have traditionally enjoyed, resources that flow out of another fundamental fact – a market of ten million (Sweden) versus a market of five million (Finland) inhabitants.

While I have no problem with academics speaking their mind for a change, an author who adheres to a rather extreme version of social constructivism should perhaps avoid normative statements.

An entire chapter deals with the history of sports journalism. While the notes on Sweden are perfectly adequate, the claims that have to do with the development of sports journalism in Finland are based on thoroughly outdated literature. Given that horse racing was the first modern sport in Finland and everywhere else, including Sweden, the origins of Finnish sports journalism can naturally be traced back to nineteenth-century trotting reports. Arguably the only novel element that the twentieth century introduced was the concept of interview; equine athletes have always been considerably more reluctant to grant interviews than their human colleagues. True, this is not a major point in the present context and I only raise it because the author has somehow managed to overlook the texts in which I revisit the misunderstood origins of sports journalism in Finland.In order to make sense of Olympic journalism in the neighbouring Nordic countries, Laine has carried out a quantitative and a qualitative content analysis of the four tabloids. In fact, if he had settled for a quantitative dissection I probably would not have had the stamina to wade through the monograph, as it contains dozens of figures with minute technical information pertaining to various aspects of the Athens and Turin coverage. The author amply demonstrates that the Swedish tabloids dedicated more space to the games than their Finnish counterparts in both absolute and relative terms. Interestingly, the Finnish coverage appears to have been more democratic, as it were; the reports published in Finland were not dominated by a particular sport to the same extent as they were in Sweden (track and field athletics in 2004 and ice hockey in 2006). This fascinating nuance could have been taken as a qualitative difference, I believe; instead, the author praises the Swedish tabloids for heeding the principle of gender equality, which is no doubt a practice worth emulating in Finland.

That Laine commends Swedish journalists for getting personal in their texts is another valid point. Better to be openly subjective than hide behind the façade of faux objectivity. In this limited sense the branding of tabloid journalists may well have been a progressive move; but when it comes to what should pass for substance, the argumentative fad is not necessarily justified by any scientific criteria. At one point the author cites a 2002 interview of Yrsa Stenius, Aftonbladet’s former editor-in-chief (of Finnish origin). According to her, the overwhelmingly pathetic tabloid headlines testify to a “degeneration of journalistic culture”. On this crucial issue Laine begs to disagree: for him, headlines screaming not only of “heroes” but of “traitors”, “scandals” and “shameful” deeds are inevitable consequences of the commercialization of journalism. While I have no problem with academics speaking their mind for a change, an author who adheres to a rather extreme version of social constructivism should perhaps avoid normative statements. “Nothing exists until it has been socially constructed”, Laine asserts in the introduction (my emphasis). If that is the case, why should he care to admonish the Finnish tabloids for not being as vocal or aggressive as the Swedish tabloids? Could it be that there is, after all, a possibility to differentiate good journalism from bad journalism? If so, should Swedish tabloid sensationalism really be recommended as the model for Finnish sports journalists?

Besides, a sworn social constructivist would not dare speak of a “doping case” casting a “menacing shadow” over a sports event. Yet those are the exact words that Antti Laine employs in regards of the 2004 case of two Greeks sprinters who were never found guilty of a doping offence. Selective subscription to social constructivism aside, the quantitative tabloid analysis is ambitiously conceived, successfully executed and lavishly displayed by him. It would certainly be illuminating to compare his results to those of an equally systematic study of what was once known as the broadsheet media, e.g. Helsingin Sanomat and Hufvudstadsbladet versus Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet. Would the Swedish newspapers still emerge victorious? In humanistic studies, presumed victories tend to lie in the eye of the beholder, but at least the next scholarly intervention should no longer hold Sweden responsible for the suspension of Paavo Nurmi’s amateur credentials, a suspension that never amounted to Nurmi being declared a professional.

 

 

 

 

 

© Erkki Vettenniemi 2012.



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