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Aidan White

utoya1Aidan White travelled to Oslo in September and met with key figures dealing with the mass killings that shocked the world

The Norwegian island of Utøya where scores of young people taking part in a political summer camp were killed by a crazed gunman in July will once again be in the headlines on October 1. Families of those killed, as well as political and community leaders will return to this beauty spot on the outskirts of Oslo to hold a special event to remember the victims.

Two days later the world’s press will get their first opportunity to visit the scene of the bloodthirsty hour-long killing spree by right wing political extremist Anders Breivik. He has already confessed to setting off a bomb in Oslo which killed eight people and then shooting dead 69 young people at a political youth camp on July 22.

Since that day Norway, one of the world’s richest and most open-minded societies, has faced searching questions about its commitment to openness, political pluralism and diversity. The media, too, have been undergoing some self-reflection.

In a world of rolling 24 hour news reporters have hardly a moment to think, but as coverage of the Utøya tragedy shows when journalism acts on impulse it can have devastating consequences. In the hours following the killings Norwegian media and much of the international press rushed to judgment with speculation that the acts of terrorism had the hallmarks of Islamic violence or Jihadist attacks.

utoya3bishopThe Bishop of Oslo Ole Christian Kvarme says media coverage led to many violent attacks on people of Middle Eastern or Asian appearance on the streets of Oslo. “This was no activity of Islamic extremists or Arab terrorists, but many thought otherwise because of media reports,” he says. “People of colour found themselves targeted for abuse and violence in the hours and days after the bombing.”

In fact, the news that the terrorist was a lone, possibly deranged Norwegian was a relief to the “better part of Oslo” according to journalist Harald Stanghalle, a leading editor with Aftenposten, the country’s largest-selling daily. “That the bomb was planted by a Norwegian, white as snow, blond and blue-eyed was a tremendous relief for many of us,” he says.

But hasty and prejudicial commentary by journalists and so-called experts was not restricted to the home-grown press. Around the world media immediately began speculative reporting and analysis that pointed the finger at Middle Eastern terrorists. The Jerusalem Post, for instance, even called on Norway to rethink its international policy positions regarding its support for Palestinians and Muslim communities. To its credit the paper apologised for these ill-judged remarks some days later.

On the ground religious leaders organised their own response to bigotry by bringing Muslim, Christian and non-faith communities together in a public demonstration that brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets of Oslo. “This has never happened before and has done much to strengthen tolerance in our society,” says Bishop Kvarme, the leader of Norway’s established Lutheran church.

In fact, Norway has emerged with its political commitment to open and tolerant politics relatively intact and much of the credit has gone to political leaders whose reactions caught the national mood.

The man who was first to speak in the hours after the attacks was Fabian Stang, the Mayor of Oslo, a conservative, who set the tone of unifying rhetoric later followed by the Prime Minister and the King. Speaking to television journalists on the steps of the town hall and still unaware of the full details of the events he said: “If we meet these attacks with hatred then the terrorists will have won.”

Two months later and speaking from his office overlooking Oslo harbor and surrounded by paintings by Munch, the country’s greatest painter, he admits that the national solidarity in the aftermath of the murders has dissipated.

Politics is returning to business as usual, he says, but not for racists and right-wing extremists. In recent local elections the vote of the Progress Party, which included Breivik in its ranks, was more than halved.

“We are not sure of what the final impact and consequence will be, but we have seen a strong and defiant response from Norwegians who want to maintain their open and inclusive society,” he says.

Someone who felt the impact of the violence more than most is Silje Grytten, a politicaladvisor in the Norwegian Parliament who has been seconded to assist the leadership of the Labour Party Youth Group (AUF). She was a young pioneer of the annual youth camp in Utøya in the 1990s.

Although she lost many friends and political allies, she says if Breivik’s aim was to strike a devastating blow against progressive politics and diversity he has failed. Indeed, the labour movement and the campaign against racism have grown stronger.

“Membership of the Labour Youth Organisation has increased by 3.000 since the attacks and, if anything, this tragedy has reduced the capacity for racists to organise,” she says. “The community has come together and extremists have been isolated.”

For journalists the Norwegian story highlighted the difficult choices editors have to make when news is breaking. It's a tough balancing act: people want to know more, every news outlet is looking for explanations, even if the facts don't allow for conclusions.

Typically, both CNN and Al Jazeera brought in “security analysts” who speculated about utoya2why Norway could be a target for Jihadi groups. In Germany the so-called “terror-experts” were jokingly re-labeled “error-experts,” but in almost all cases the problem of news judgment was considered an individual error rather than symptomatic of a flawed media system.

When the facts were established most media simply switched from one narrative to another. Instead of a crisis of Islamic terrorism, the Norwegian tragedy became a crisis of right wing fanaticism and a new set of talking heads were invited into the studio.

Reliable and responsible journalism would have been to simply report the situation on the ground: the state of shock, the emotions of people who witnessed what happened, and to do so without jumping to conclusions.

In Oslo media are thinking hard about the consequences of how they reacted to the July events and how they can avoid these mistakes in future. It would be a tragedy for journalism if media the world over do not also learn similar lessons.

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