The Utöya Massacre: A Nordic Tragedy
Reporters from Finland and Sweden describe how they approached the recent massacre on the island of Utöya and the explosion in Olso that preceded it.
This text is based on presentations made at The Finland-Swedish publishers association’s annual journalism seminar and as a part of the Åbo Akademi university course “Mass media’s role in crises” in Finland during the Fall of 2011.
It started with a bomb detonating in Central Oslo. A few hours later, an even more terrifying truth was unfolding: An unknown assailant was shooting young people taking part in a youth camp on a small island just outside the capital. The news on July 22nd of the mass killing that eventually left 77 people dead held Norway and the wider region in deep shock.
Alexander Uggla from Finland and Jenny Sanner Roosqvist from Sweden were two journalists who found themselves parachuted in to cover events. At an important seminar in Finland in August they shared their thoughts on responding to an event whose ripples spread out across Norway’s boarders. The presentation was a part of an annual seminar for journalists, educators and other media workers, organized by the Finland-Swedish Publishers Association.
Uggla, who had ten years of experience as a journalist, was working at the news desk at the Finnish Broadcasting Company when the first flashes of the Oslo explosion reached his computer. Instantly, he knew that this was something big.
The next morning, he arrived in Oslo, knowing that his role was to be live and to do as many news bulletins as he could. This proved far from easy, as he needed to report both from Oslo’s city centre and Sundvollen, the mainland village close to Utöya island. Blocked roads, technical problems and an absence of functioning web contact all added to the pressure. Uggla explained:
There I was, stuck in a taxi at a road block on the way to Utöya, with no other information other than what the news desk could forward to me and the comments I had gathered from people in the street throughout the day. I was supposed to report live updates but I felt that I didn’t know anything.
Indeed, his first reports where based on information fed to him via producers in Finland during the minutes before he went live.
Sanner Roosqvist, an experienced crisis reporter from Swedish Radio, was on vacation when she was called in. She had a colleague working in Oslo and this put her in a better position than Uggla – she was free to concentrate on gathering material from Sundvollen, the epicentre of the emergency response.
In her view, the key to being effective at a crisis scene hinges on how one speaks to people in shock. It is not necessarily “doing actual interviews” but knowing how to talk to people you meet in the street or a store that provides one with “a larger picture that you then can share.”
I talked to a lot of people. Some of them were eyewitnesses; those that had swum to shore from the island. In many cases it’s just chatting: I tell them who I am and what I do, but don’t record anything.
KNOWING WHEN TO SAY NO
Another important attribute of a good crisis reporter, Sanner Roosqvist believes, is to know when to turn down requests from employers. It is necessary for a reporter to have confidence that they are trusted to make the right decision.
Sanner Roosqvist turned down the suggestion that she should hire a boat to get closer to the island as another Swedish media organization had. She felt it would get in the way of the police operation and would not provide any solid journalistic value other than offering images of the island and victims at close range.
FIRST AUTOPILOT – THE REACTION COMES LATER
Both Sanner Roosqvist and Uggla had a similar reaction to being at the location of the attacks. It was all about the work while they were there: they felt like there were on autopilot and surprisingly detached from personal reactions.
Uggla said that the time before deployment — gathering technical equipment and waiting for the plane — had helped him to prepare his mind. That said, it was a tough assignment. It felt close to home. As Sanner Roosqvist recalled:
Any one of us could have had our children there. We could have been helping out at the camp. I’ve sent off my children to camps this summer, and this I think is why you feel so engaged in this incident. This wasn’t the worst case I’ve worked on, since I wasn’t personally threatened, and nor did I see it happen. But the sorrow came so close. And both you, on a personal level, and the team at the studio needs to understand this — you feel more worn out afterwards.
For both journalists, the predominant feeling on their return was an overwhelming tiredness. Both agreed that this was a normal reaction to what was an extreme situation. After the assignment, they talked through the experience with colleagues, at official and unofficial meetings, and found that to be helpful in working through the experience.
Alexander Uggla, as a Finnish journalist, comes from a country with recent memories of its own sudden mass murders — the school massacres in Jokela in 2007 and Kauhajoki in 2008. The fear that his reporting might stir up distressing memories in the Finnish public was a real factor.
“I deliberately chose not to draw any parallels to the shootings,” Uggla said.
In fact, Uggla did not mention the Finnish shootings at all. Young people were the target in both Norway and Finland but he did not want to underline that similarity, for the reason that the political motives in the Norwegian case made the incidents so different.
The shootings in Jokela and Kauhajoki had a broader impact on how Uggla worked in the field.
Of course I had the Finnish school shootings in the back of my mind, especially the criticism back then against Finnish journalists, that they were breaking all kinds of ethical boundaries. In Norway, I met some eyewitnesses at my hotel and asked them if I could do an interview. When they said no, I didn’t even want to try to persuade them into doing the interview. After the Finnish shootings experience, I was more aware of the harm I, as a reporter, can do to survivors.
Looking back on the incident, at another presentation, this time for university students in Helsinki, there is one specific lesson Uggla learnt from the tragedy in Norway – something he feels he could have done differently.
The perpetrator’s original intent had been to spread his extremist vision via the mass media. Now afterwards, I may not have used the name of the perpetrator as often as I did in the live broadcasts. The Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, avoided using the name and only referred to “the perpetrator” in his official comments, and I think that worked very well.