On May 15, 2017, Karin Pettersson gave the Bernard D. Nossiter ’47 lecture on the challenges that traditional media outlets and democracy in a broader sense, face in a period of intense political polarization as encapsulated in far right-wing populist movements. Pettersson discussed the perfect storm formed by the transformation of the media landscape and the ascension of right-wing populism in Europe and the United States, combined with the vulnerabilities these changes have revealed. Considering this volatile environment, Pettersson also addressed the ways in which journalists and citizens can meet this growing challenge.
Although Pettersson’s work as a political editor-in-chief now concerns right-wing populist movements and the changing landscape of journalism, her initial academic pursuits were actually in the field of economics. Even Pettersson’s studies in economics, however, contained elements of writing as exemplified by her early summer internship in writing about macroeconomics.
Pettersson emphasized that she always had a persistent and lasting interest in politics from the beginning. She further described her professional career as “unusual” in terms of how it has oscillated between politics and journalism. For example, Pettersson worked for the Swedish Ministry of Finance at one time in her career before fully embarking in journalism.
Pettersson’s work for the student newspaper at her university ignited her passion for journalism, despite her initial thoughts on not becoming a journalist. However, she soon realized the “power of journalism and how it could be used to challenge authority and power structures,” when the newspaper broke a huge news story on a campus scandal and were reprimanded by a university administrator for supposedly depicting the university in a negative light.
Now in the prime of her career in journalism, Pettersson is currently focused on studying how extreme right-wing movements use digital platforms to reach audiences and the effect of these tactics on traditional media. She said her work is especially relevant now as the strategies of right-wing populism have been the current “big story in European politics.”
Pettersson’s intense interest in this subject emerged from her origins on the left side of politics and how she had been following the politics of these movements for a long time, particularly their policies and attempts to build alternative media networks.
As a 2017 Neiman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University, Pettersson has another opportunity to further her work in assessing the impact of right-wing populism on the media. She first became interested in the fellowship as she was intrigued by Harvard’s big election project where they were also trying to assess how the right-wing media, influences mainstream political discourse.
Following the conclusion of her Neiman fellowship, Pettersson said she plans to return to Sweden and continue to perfect her craft with better opinion journalism. She emphasized how she will return with fresh ideas about how to take her work at Aftonbladet to the next level.
Looking forward towards the future in this new age of journalism, Pettersson also provided advice for both students contemplating careers in journalism and careers elsewhere. She encouraged these students to first discover their true passions and interests before choosing their career.
According to her, students should ask themselves, “what is it in my life that does not feel like work?” Once students have discovered their passions, Pettersson said they should then harness the skills to specialize in that area as she considers specialization to be a wonderful avenue to market knowledge that you have and that other people would not.
Specifically, for students seeking a career in journalism, she encouraged them to use the tools of the new age, such as Twitter and other social media platforms, to communicate with others in the business and also to showcase their talents to the world. For her, it is crucial for these students to gain early experience, market themselves to the world without being affiliated to a network initially, and find their own voice.
Karin Pettersson is the political editor-in-chief at Aftonbladet, Scandinavia’s biggest daily newspaper. She is also the co-founder and former editor-in-chief of Fokus, Sweden’s leading newsmagazine. During her time at Fokus, the publication won one of Sweden’s most prestigious awards for reinventing political journalism. At Aftonbladet, she has quadrupled the readership of the editorial page and started a new digital brand for editorial journalism online. Pettersson won the European Newspaper Award for a series about Roma people in Stockholm. She is the 2017 Nieman-Berkman Fellow in Journalism Innovation.
-Written by Rachel Favors ’18, Rockefeller Center Student Program Assistant for Communications.