Why Overheated Journalism Works
By Claude Adams
Early in the pages of The End of Iceland’s Innocence, Daniel Chartier fires a familiar rocket at the print media; that journalists often hype, spin, magnify and sensationalize “the facts . . . creating an ethos to make the news more appealing to readers.”
He’s about to tell us that the banking crisis in Iceland in 2008 was a media narrative. Yes, the banks failed, and yes, there was a loss of faith in the island’s economy, and yes, Iceland’s moneymen and politicians made some terrible mistakes that reverberated throughout the European economies.
But it was the Greek chorus of international commentators, wielding the language of hyperbole, who did the real damage. “The foreign media,” Chartier says, “worsened the situation and made Iceland a pathetic example of the financial failure the world was experiencing.”
It’s a compelling argument if you look only at the tone and the language of the coverage. Chartier, a literature prof at the University of Quebec in Montreal, based his study on the reporting of nine reputable newspapers in the fall and winter of 2008, including The New York Times, Le Monde, the Financial Times, The Globe and Mail, and Montreal’s Le Devoir. There’s no denying that the reporting often lurches into the apocalyptic: Iceland’s international reputation “ruined” (Financial Times), Iceland is “about to sink” (Le Monde), Iceland “crashing down to earth” (The Australian); Iceland “like Chernobyl” (Bloomberg); and my personal favorite, Iceland “the Nordic Zimbabwe” (The Huffington Post)
Of course, Iceland is still there in the North Atlantic. It hasn’t sunk, crashed, melted, imploded or drifted into the heart of darkness. Icelanders haven’t descended into cannibalism or thrown themselves lemming-like into the icy sea. Indeed, we’ve seen very little about Iceland in the newspapers since those grim days in 2008/09, but a quick search through the 2011 CIA World Factbook tells us that Icelanders are slowly putting their economy back together again. They haven’t gone Zimbabwean.
So yes, we can agree with Chartier that the ethos of catastrophe created by the print media muddied our perception of this tiny nation, with a population—320,000—equivalent to that of a mid-sized Canadian city. But the author goes too far when he argues that “this foreign discourse . . . has constructed for millions of people abroad the only image of Iceland they will ever get.” Most of us already had an image of Iceland before 2008, and it was a pretty Tolkienesque one: a land of hardy Nordic seafarers and fishermen, the world’s most peaceful country (a 2008 global index), occupied by the happiest, the healthiest, the best-read, the friendliest, and the greenest of people. Before 2008, we thought Iceland and what came to mind were Bjork and Bobby Fischer’s hideaway and halibut and volcanoes and a capital city that was impossible to spell. But that perception has been smashed. Today, thanks to the coverage of 2008, we know that Icelanders are Europeans living on a small island who survived a terrible economic collapse. Cut their credit and they bleed. Just like the rest of us.
So the over-hyped media attention, while traumatizing, may have been a useful wakeup call, for us and for Icelanders.
That’s not to excuse hyper-ventilative reporting. Matthew Arnold called journalism “literature in a hurry” and in the profession’s galloping urgency, a sense of proportion (not to mention the literary sense) is often lost. Major events become history-altering, medical advances become breakthroughs, every revolt is a democratic upheaval, and heroes are a dime a dozen. Editors have taken Pauline Kael’s admonition to filmmakers—“Astonish us!”—and directed it at their reporters. No surprise, then, that journalists will gild the grammar and torque the story.
Chartier does it himself, with the title of his book. Iceland was never “innocent” and 2008 wasn’t the end of anything. But as you follow his story chapter by chapter, you begin to see that while the newspapers may have amped the story, all those unhappy things did happen: Icelanders did over-indulge, the country’s three big commercial banks did collapse, and, relative to the country’s size, this was the biggest banking meltdown suffered by any country in economic history. And yes, the UK government did then apply anti-terrorism legislation against Iceland to recoup money owed to British depositors. And many Icelanders have turned their attention to fishing again.
All these things happened. And likely would have happened, even if Iceland had been a media-free zone. The journalists simply added the over-rich adjectives, and in their inimitable circus-barker way, drew us into the tent to tell us about a place we knew very little about. They came, they saw, they inflated. Thus it ever was. And will be.