Klassekampen editor calls racist media coverage findings of Covid pandemic in Norway an “overinterpretation”

Words by Macel Ingles
Photos by Traci Milimo

Klassekampen editor Mari Skurdal called the findings of UiO Professor Cristina Archetti and NTNU researcher Banafsheh Ranji’s study showing that Norwegian media was racist in its coverage of the Covid pandemic in Norway an “overinterpretation” and cited that the use of the “innvandrersmitte”, to refer to Covid infections among immigrants, was a mere “mishap” that was corrected by the editors (of Aftenposten) by withdrawing it.

“I was provoked by Cristina’s presentation. I think some of the interpretations are overinterpreted as racism,” Skurdal said in response to the study. Although she admitted that an Aftenposten cover (reporting on Covid) was “more problematic”, she insisted that the story accompanying the cover was “ok.” Skurdal was referring to an Aftenposten headline “Innvandrersmitten bekymrer” (Immigrant infection causes concern) that came out in 12 November 2020. The said headline generated a lot of flak for the use of the term and was seen as stigmatizing immigrants as source of infection.

She added that she believed that Aftenposten’s use of the term, “innvandrersmitte” had no racist thoughts behind it, calling it a “mishap” and that the paper did not realize that they used a more loaded word than they thought. She also said that the story is “more complex than how it was presented in the study where she (Archetti) just say there are some hidden racial messages or thoughts.”

Archetti for her part pointed out that beyond one mere example, her study showed a trend (of racist coverage) that spanned over a year and was consistent for fifteen months. She added that while she understands that there can be mishaps, but when the term “innvandrersmitte” had been used, it means that “(media) are not thinking about the words that (they) are using” and if there are “mishaps after mishaps, it means there is a lack of attention (on the part of media).”

She also said that she is more concerned about how the journalists are presenting the measures (such as the decision of Oslo City Council leader Raymond Johansen to call for the covid testing of all passengers disembarking from planes from Poland) and that journalists have to take responsibility and realize that how they present the measures day after day creates an effect.

UiO Professor Cristina Archetti. Photo by Traci Milimo / The Oslo Desk.

“I am not criminalizing the media or blaming the journalists, but journalism comes with responsibilities and it is really important to understand the long term and cumulative effects (of their reports),” she added.

Interviews of immigrants in the study revealed the far-reaching effects of the news on immigrant communities which include experiences of alienation, resignation, microaggressions, and feeling of being watched, as well as being made to feel worthless and not belonging by not “fitting into the Norwegian box”. All of which had profound consequences on their daily lives.

Other panelists Sevda Barazesh from Avisa Oslo and Sumeet Singh Patpatia, Global Head of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at Schibsted also chimed in on the findings of racist coverage of the pandemic in Norway.

Sedva Barazeh from Avisa Oslo said that there while they may be facts that had to be reported on immigrant infection during the pandemic, she also admitted that may be some failings in the media coverage of immigrants and some questions have to be asked on how the immigrants had been treated in the coverage of the stories, “Are we using the terminology that we are supposed to? We need to face and we actually want to talk to those people that are affected; how do we talk to the people who are affected? Are we doing it with prejudice?”

As for Patpatia, he said that he finds racism a difficult topic to digest. “What we do know is that there are biases among journalists, and that can apply to the media houses too I guess, because we are not always exposed to all different and kinds of people,” he added. He also admitted that unbalanced reporting by newrooms (focus on negative stories rather than stories that the immigrants wants covered) resulted in news avoidance by the immigrants as shown in the findings of Schibsted’s IN/LAB recently launched report in collaboration with Järvaveckan Research.

(Left to Right) Tim Solwoong Kim, Sevda Barazesh, and Mari Skurdal. Photo by Traci Milimo / The Oslo Desk.
(Left to Right) Ka Man Mak, Prof. Cristina Archetti and Sumeet Singh Patpatia. Photo by Traci Milimo / The Oslo Desk.

Archetti presented her study, “The elephant in the newsroom: Racism in Norwegian media” at The Oslo Desk’s Panel Discussion on Media Representation and Inclusive Newsroom held at the Pressens Hus, 22nd August. The study analysed 240 articles from Aftenposten, VG and Klassekampen on their portrayals (frames) of immigrants within the coverage of the pandemic from 26th February 2020 to 15th May 2021. Apart from text analysis, the study also included interviews with immigrants and foreign embassy staff.

The study found among other things that the coverage presented long-threaded narratives that portrayed the Norwegians as “pure” and “healthy” threatened and contaminated by an “infectious” outsider (ikke-norsk); association of infection on specific ethnic minorities and presenting infection rates point to a misleading portrayal as “source of infection.”

It also cited the messages of “in between lines” in the coverage that while not using explicit denigratory term, but still can be considered discriminatory in the use of stigmatization by statistics presented as “facts” and covering positive stories that are actually negative (for immigrants).

Moreover, the study found that discrimination permeates the details that matter in the coverage such as emphasis of danger in headlines, the focus on “culture” that is being blamed for high infection rates among immigrants instead of taking a critical approach to authorities to find alternative explanation for the phenomena.  It further found invisible yet discriminatory scripts such as inclusion of irrelevant details pointing to ethnicity and burying positive or critical voices at the bottom of the text.

The study concluded that the Norwegian media coverage presented “features of racism that operated subtly, from in-between lines that had profound implications on the sense of belonging (among immigrants) and democracy.” She added that the coverage was not only a “problem of language,” but was “rather related to a (largely unconscious) shared mindset.”

Professor Cristina Archetti has been studying the role of journalism in political processes for 20 years and has been writing extensively on foreign correspondence, national and international news.  She is currently researching the hidden forms in which racism is produced and reproduced in Norwegian media and working on which practical measures can contribute to greater inclusion. She published several books including, “Explaining News: Journalistic Cultures in Global Context” which came out in 2010.

Asta Busingye Lydersen. Photo by Traci Milimo / The Oslo Desk.

Asta Busingye Lydersen, who worked in the cultural sector and has a journalist background, told the panelists that the use of statistics as facts in the coverage is a simplification on the part of media and that observed that the coverage of the pandemic implied that ethnicity was a factor in the infection instead of citing other factors involved, such as socio-economic factor.

Diversity and inclusion specialist Tumi Sineka, observed racism is an emotive topic, but that “there is power in understanding what racism is which is a mix of racial bias and power.” In the media’s case, she says, in portraying the world that we see, it is a mix of racial bias that is portrayed in the stories that were presented, as well as power of the media to design or to visualize this world for us.

“So as much as it is incredibly uncomfortable to say that it is racist, I think, when we talk about racist elements in the portrayal of people in groups, then we need to think about the definition and ask, is this racist or not?”, she added.  

Mikael Musoke, a freelance journalist and leader of The Greater Africa Foundation, had a much stronger take on the discussion, writing on his Facebook account that he was “shocked” by what Mari Skurdal said in the panel discussion and wrote that he did not expect to hear it from her.  He added that she should look up gaslighting in the dictionary and hand in her resignation as editor of Klassekampen. To Musoke, this is the right thing to do considering what he called Skurdal’s trampling on the minority population.

Organizer and The Oslo Desk Founder Ka Man Mak understands that talking about media and racism in the panel discussion is “not easy but important.”

“Many immigrant lives are impacted by Norwegian media narratives and that needs to be recognised. The panel discussion revealed the challenges within Norwegian media when it comes to systematic racism,” she added.

She also revealed that “many participants have come up to me after the panel discussion to express how they felt, particularly their lived experiences were erased and ignored by the comments from Mari Skurdal.”

“When I established The Oslo Desk, it is to take up these hard topics and ask the hard questions to better Norwegian journalism. The perception of racism media coverage is not an American or British phenomenon, it is also happening here in Norwegian newsrooms,” she concluded.

Macel Ingles

Macel Ingles is from the Philippines and has worked in various capacities in Philippine media as news bureau chief, executive producer and news desk editor over 20+ years. She obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Development Studies from the University of the Philippines and a Diploma in Media and Communications at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. She also got a Masters in Science in the Development Studies focused on Conflict Studies from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. She was also a fellow of The Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise's Global Future. She has also worked as researcher on sustainable agriculture for the Interchurch Fund for International Development and on Labor conditions in Economic Zones for Urban Missionaries. Skilled in Translation (Norwegian/English/Tagalog), Breaking News, Journalism, Media Relations, and Television.