Ann Törnkvist: Parachute journalists like Tim Pool a threat to democracy
The American journalist Tim Pool’s Sweden tour, reporting from several suburbs, managed to attract a global audience. He tagged a video from March 1 with ”getting 'escorted' out of the 'no-go zone' ” - the angle being his claim to have to leave Stockholm neighbourhood Rinkeby with a police escort, something the police have denied. They also denied that the atmosphere had been threatening, commenting that people had only covered their faces to avoid being filmed.
Erik Helmerson, an editorial writer for Sweden’s largest paper, Dagens Nyheter, claimed the incident showed something was ”seriously wrong” and ”rotten” in Sweden, but Ann Törnkvist, a former beat reporter with Swedish public service radio, counters that while any journalist should be able to do their work without feeling unsafe, Tim Pool’s brand of ”parachute journalism” – landing in a place of which one has little prior knowledge – is a greater threat to democracy than people hiding their faces from the camera.
Update: We've clarified that this is an op-ed, a debate piece. The content and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own. Tim Pool was immediately given the opportunity to reply, but chose to do this on his own vlog. Here's a transcription of his reply.
When Erik Helmerson states in DN that the atmosphere in Rinkeby when Tim Pool paid a visit shows something’s rotten in Sweden, he without doubt makes a valid point. But perhaps he should take aim at another problem? Because Tim Pool represents short-sighted journalism that works on a closed-question premise. This kind of journalism is the true bad guy in this scenario and is the bigger threat to Sweden and to all democracies, as democracy only functions if everyone gets a chance to speak up. That in turn requires that people not only have the courage to speak out without fear of being misquoted, misrepresented or made into symbols in a larger political debate, but that people need to see the value of journalism and trust the journalists.
But to explain what I mean, I’ll rewind to another suburb, Husby, a year after the so- called ”Stockholm Riots” which took place there. I paid a visit with a young, German journalist. My opening question on the street was ”What happened?”; hers was ”Do you feel safe here?”. My irritation couldn’t have been more obvious. First of all, any journalist worth their salt knows that yes-or-no questions are a useless tool for gathering information, unless they’re used to confirm or clarify a point in a longer conversation. Secondly, her question meant that she had, with the help of her editor in Germany, already decided what the story was: that people didn’t feel safe in their own neighbourhood. Safety is an important issue, but asking that question in that way was hardly an invitation to get people to share their experiences and opinions.
About the same time, the principal of Ronna School in Södertälje fired a salvo against foreign journalists. Södertälje’s an industrial town half an hour south of Stockholm, famous for successive generations of immigrants from the Finns in the 60s and Syriacs and Arameans in the 70s, followed by Iraqis in the late 00s and Syrians in the 10s. She said that foreign journalists all too often showed up at the school with their opinion of the town and its integration challenges already fixed firmly in mind. They just wanted her to either confirm or deny their views. Facts and context? Not so interesting.
This kind of reporting is called ”parachute journalism” – a correspondent’s sent out on a short trip, and leaves soon thereafter. They hardly know anything about the place they land in, and one has to ask how much more they know when they leave.
It’s not uncommon for foreign media to get in touch with me and ask for help with contacts, and I always say yes. I also always ask for a dayrate. I spend time and energy making contacts and earning their confidence, that doesn’t come for free and I care too much about my sources to hand their phone numbers to reporters I know nothing about and therefore don’t have reason to trust. I either want to be there, or I want to spend a day calling the people I know beforehand to ask if it’s okay to pass on their number – hence the dayrate.
Yet foreign media with big names and big budgets are often perplexed by my request. They have the money to send someone, but not to pay for help. Weird arithmetic. What can a Spanish newspaper achieve in Södertälje in just two days? Can a British paper acquire a well-rounded understanding of crime in Sweden after an hour’s chat with the disgruntled police investigator Peter Springare in Örebro?
It is precisely to work long-term that we have correspondents out in the world. And why we have local papers and why Swedish public service radio has local newsrooms across Sweden. Swedish Radio's Stockholm newsroom, for example, has offices in the suburbs Botkyrka, Sollentuna and Järva (which includes Rinkeby) as well as the town of Södertälje to cover as much of Stockholm County as possible, not just City Hall and the city centre.
Parachute journalism is not something to aspire to. I admit I’ve done it myself, but I’ve also promised myself never again to commit the same sin.
Tim Pool seems not only to be a classic parachute journalist, but a reporter who landed in Sweden with a very clear yes-or-no question: Is Sweden not safe? Is it really then so odd that some of the people he met responded with scepticism?
I hope no one twists my argument here: of course I think everyone should take seriously their democratic responsibility to debate difficult questions publicly, but one doesn’t have to give interviews to all journalists – some reporters are good, others bad, many simply don’t have good assignments, or the time to do their job properly.
So yes, everyone should speak out if we’re going to get democracy to function as well as it can, but at the same time we reporters can never forget that to be interviewed or photographed or filmed is to put yourself in a vulnerable position. I often tell young journalists to have a colleague fake interview them about something really private and sensitive so that they can understand the feeling of handing over information to another person.
At times, foreign media interview me and it isn’t always fun. One year I was correctly quoted by Süddeutsche Zeitung only to be grossly misquoted by a Der Spiegel contributor (thankfully, my quote didn’t make the final version - coincidentally that interview was about my dislike of parachute journalism).
So what’s the alternative? Well, that long-term local journalism is the only way to build confidence and trust and to encourage people to speak up, that journalists take their time to get to know people, that reporters listen to interviewees’ criticism and feedback.
Does this mean I wanted Tim Pool to feel threatened? Of course not. But it does mean that I feel a great deal of sympathy with people in Rinkeby and other suburbs who are made use of in an infected political debate about immigration, and who may simply not have wanted to be filmed by a parachute journalist.
And finally, one doesn’t exclude the other. Dagens Nyheter’s Erik Helmerson is right: Tim Pool should be able to strap on his parachute and dive into Rinkeby without feeling threatened, but my conclusion is that the kind of journalism he represents is a bigger threat to Sweden and to democracy than people who cover their faces to avoid being filmed.
This is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are the writer's own.
Tim Pool was immediately given the opportunity to reply tho this piece, but chose to do so on his own vlog