Making the news in Britain and Finland

By Hannu Nieminen

When I arrived in London in 1992 to write my doctoral dissertation, one of my first impressions was the feeling that a fundamental difference existed between Finland and Britain in the way social phenomena manifest themselves in the media. This seemed clear to me just by reading daily newspapers and watching television news programmes. And this suspicion has remained with me ever since.

That this is not just my own experience has been confirmed by many non-British colleagues with whom I have discussed the issue. However, since 1992, I have not come across any serious comparative study confirming and clarifying these differences. This is why I have decided to put the case as I see it.

Basically, what first struck me was the dominance of news about the need for law and order in society. According to newspapers and news programmes, everyday life seemed to be full of threats and dangers lurking everywhere and endangering citizens. Children, women and elderly people in particular lived in constant danger: child molesters, rapists and muggers of pensioners were around every corner. You needed to be constantly alert and vigilant in order to survive.

This atmosphere is reinforced by concern for the conditions and standards of the core institutions that exist to enforce law and order in society. How does the police force perform? Does it protect ordinary people, or is it itself corrupt? How does the judiciary perform? Is it on the side of the man and woman on the street, or is it allied to the rich and powerful? There is a constant suspicion of authority: can we trust them this time?

Often this distrust is directed against certain professional groups, but by no means the most powerful and influential ones - quite the contrary, in fact. Particularly in the early 90s, professional groups such as social workers and school teachers were the targets of vicious public victimisation: they were accused of corrupting the nation, and of defending and even promoting such immoral phenomena as lone mothers, social scroungers, bogus asylum seekers, juvenile delinquents etc.

I am not saying that this reflects any genuine public opinion in Britain. Instead, I take it to reflect the way public life in Britain has evolved over time. This gives us an idea of the kinds of issues members of the public are allowed to form their own opinions on, or are even expected to have opinions on.

If this characterises public life in Britain, what then are the characteristics of public life in Finland? I am afraid that I cannot say much about this here, except what is obvious from what I have said above: that in Finland, news is not so dominated by issues of law and order. What we need here is concrete empirical research which would compare the issues and events that make the news in Finland and Britain, and hopefully other European countries as well.

In order to find out if my preliminary perceptions have any validity at all, I carried out a small test. I selected four newspapers, two Finnish daily papers (Helsingin Sanomat and Turun Sanomat, the biggest and the third biggest daily papers) and two English quality dailies (The Times and The Guardian). I compared the news items on their home news pages on two days (21 October 1997 and 5 February 1998).

On the two days in question there were 76 news items in the home news section of Helsingin Sanomat. Of these, 13 were related to the subjects referred to above i.e. crime, policing, the army, law and justice. In Turun Sanomat, of the 113 items (including regional news), 6 covered these issues.

This contrasts with The Times, where there were a total of 97 items, 32 of which dealt with crime, policing, the army, law and justice. The Guardian carried 69 news items in total. Of these, 28 items were related to law and order. (See the table below.)

  Total number of news items Related to law & order Per cent related to law & order
Finnish papers         189           19          10%

English papers

        166           60          36%

Although this exercise has only very limited validity, it seems to suggest that there really is a difference, and that it can be empirically explored.

I also looked for other types of news that the papers contained. The comparison seemed to point strongly to the fact that the Finnish papers carry certain types of news that cannot be found in English papers, or if they are, they are much underrepresented there.

Such categories included, for example, news concerning people's working conditions (working environment, work-related health problems and safety issues), labour markets and collective negotiations between employers' and workers' unions, and unemployment and its social impact.

What can we tell from these differences? Firstly, that there is a need for further research. The material is in place -- all that is missing is a comparative framework. Secondly, that the press in Britain seems to address the public as a collection of individuals, subject to forces outside their control. In Finland, on the other hand, the public are addressed as members of society who have at least something to say on matters of concern to them.

The article is based on a paper given in the seminar "Public Opinion in Different National Settings" held at the Finnish Institute in London on October 30, 1997. Hannu Nieminen is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, University of Turku.

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