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The Aftenposten and Abortion in Norway: The Media Project, November 14, 2014 November 14, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Press criticism, The Media Project.
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“All the News That’s Fit to Print” first appeared on the cover of the New York Times on October 25, 1896. The newspaper’s publisher Adolph Ochs adopted the slogan for professional and business reasons.

Ochs wanted to set the Times apart from its more sensationalist competitors, filling the market niche of New York’s quality newspaper. Pursuing high quality journalism not only was a moral good, it could make money also, he believed.

The business model adopted by Ochs and other “quality” newspapers at the start of the Twentieth Century guided the empirical practices of the mainstream press for most of the last century, though tabloids in the US and the “red tops” in the UK have never followed this code.

Over the last twenty-five years the Ochs model has been challenged by the advocacy press approach, where a newspaper reports on a story from an openly avowed ideological perspective. A French newspaper reader knows that when he reads about the same issue in Liberation, Le Monde, Le Figaro, La Croix and L’Humanite he will be presented with left, center left, center right, Catholic and Communist perspectives of an issue.

In and of itself, such an advocacy approach is not a bad thing. Seeing a story from a variety of perspectives often allows the reader to gain a deeper understanding of the issues than that presented by a traditional newspaper following the “All the News That’s Fit to Print” model. So long as falsehoods are not presented, reading different “spins” or interpretations of the same event can enlighten readers by presenting to them different ways of thinking about an issue.

These musings on the nature of truth, cranks and newspaper reporting were prompted by an item that caught my eye in a story from News in English.no — a website that carries English-language news stories from Norway. Its headline stated: “Abortion opponent disrupted bishop’s ceremony” and the article reported:

Anti-abortion activist Per Kørner demonstrated his views during Sunday’s ceremony in Tromsø consecrating the newest bishop of the Norwegian Church, Olav Øygard. Kørner was eventually seized by two civilian clad police who firmly escorted him out of the ceremony.

… Kørner disrupted the ceremony when he strode forth in the cathedral, sitting down close to the king until he was literally carried out, involuntarily, by the two policemen. Then the ceremony continued as normal. Kørner told newspaper Aftenposten afterwards that he wanted “to challenge the church to fight on behalf of the most helpless members of society,” in his view, unborn children.

Intrigued I went to Aftenposten — Norway’s largest “quality” newspaper. Struggling manfully through the article entitled “Abortmotstander kastet ut av kongens sikkerhetsvakter” with dictionary in hand, I found Aftenposten was telling a different story.

In roughly the same number of words as the News in English.no article, I learned that Kørner was a 78-year-old former priest of the Church of Norway. And after the incident Kørner received a free ride to a police station, but was not charged with any crime. It further noted that the five years ago a similar protest took place at the consecration of another Norwegian bishop. The article ends by stating Kørner was one of three Church of Norway priests who in 1991 founded a breakaway group from the Church of Norway.

The addition of this background material made the story far more understandable to a reader not familiar with Norwegian ecclesiastical politics. But the two articles also differed on what happened. For the News in English.no, Kørner “disrupted the ceremony”.  A reader of Aftenposten would conclude it was the police who disrupted the ceremony. TheAftenposten reported:

Med en refleksvest full av bibelsitater gikk Per Kørner opp til alteret i Tromsø domkirke under innsettelse av ny biskop og gjorde seg klar til å be. …

Wearing a reflective safety vest covered in Bible quotes, Per Kørner went up to the altar in Tromsø Cathedral during the inauguration of the new bishop and prepared himself to pray. …

Kong Harald satt ikke langt fra alteret, men ingen ting tyder på at aksjonistpresten forsøkte å komme i kontakt med kongen. Håndfast geleidet sikkerhetsvaktene Kørner ut en sidedør til Tromsø domkirke.

King Harald sat not far from the altar, but there was no hint the activist priest attempted to approach the King. Assertive security guards then escorted Kørner out of a side door of Tromsø Cathedral.

Why the disparity in accounts? What happened at Tromsø Cathedral? If a 78-year old gay activist had approached the altar rail adorned with a vest or ornaments promoting his agenda, would the police have acted in the same way?

Aftenposten does not ask this question, but sticks to a reporting of events. News in English.no treats Kørner as a crank, and by adopting the position at the start of the story that what Kørner did was improper, the reporter should have placed his actions in the context of similar actions — allowing the reader to decide if this fellow is the villain of the piece.

Now, this approach would be what a traditional newspaper would do. If News in English.no is an advocacy site, then it begins with the premise anti-abortion protestors are cranks and supplies the details to support its argument.

Was “all the news that was fit to print” included in this story? Further detail and analysis can always be added, but Aftenposten did the better job, allowing the events to tell the story, rather than allowing perceptions of the sanity of Kørner to drive the telling.

Some philosophers tell us that no perspective is free from bias. The issue then becomes whether that bias is acknowledged or understood. One man’s crank may be another’s saint.

First printed in The Media Project.