Where’s the beef? Decoding the decline in Finnish media trust

REUTERS/Joshua Lott (UNITED STATES)

One of the most contentious stories in Finnish news media last year was the decision by Helsinki University cafeteria to stop serving beef. REUTERS/Joshua Lott (UNITED STATES)

One of the most debated issues in the fall of 2019 in Finland was the decision by the Helsinki University cafeterias to eliminate beef from lunches and provide more vegetarian and vegan fare.

The decision caused an uproar among sections of the Finnish political class. One MP called the decision a travesty perpetrated by the “veggie mafia”. The Agriculture Minister chimed in to say he didn't think the decision was “sensible” and another prominent MP said the menu adjustment was part of a “culture war”.

On the surface, this uproar was about beef or dietary trends, but in reality it was a conflict about identity, recognition and perceived threats against one’s own group.

In my work as head of quality control and audience dialogue at the Finnish public service broadcasting company Yle, I have encountered my fair share of “grumpy old men” in emails to the public editor, comments below articles, and formal complaints. 

But something has changed in the past few years: there are more of them, and they are angrier, and their objections have become oddly predictable.  

For several decades now, Finnish society has been characterised by high levels of trust in its institutions, including the media.

There is a history that explains this: to call Finland’s post-war recovery effort a success story is not an exaggeration. In the space of five decades, Finland turned from a war-ravaged agrarian society into one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world.

At the same time, a generous system of welfare benefits was developed. Politically, the country operated a true multi-party system for decades, with no large, dominant parties, but three or four middle-sized ones. This has made consensus a political virtue and necessity.

That same attitude transcends the political arena: in the labour market and social policy, employers, employees, trade unions and public authorities have collaborated closely for decades. It has been regarded as a central contributing factor in the creation of the welfare state.

The general effect of all this cooperation has been not only equality between the citizens and a relatively high standard of living, but also that the potential sources of discontent have largely been removed.

In other words: there has not been any clear “breeding ground” for societal mistrust, no polarisation which would feed resentment and anger.   

So why then has the country recorded a 9% drop in trust in media according to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report? Is this the canary in the coal mine? Does it signal a shift to more identity politics? What should we be doing differently to win back our audiences?

These are the questions I spent my time as a Reuters Institute Journalism Fellow considering. The solutions, I believe, will be an unflinching commitment to transparency, a healthy helping of humility, and a good dollop of pride for the vital work that we do.