And here I thought the CBC had some credibility. Silly me.

by alda on March 27, 2009

Here’s a delightful little story about journalistic integrity.

Last Monday, just after landing at Keflavík airport, I was leisurely browsing the Duty Free Store when my cellphone rang. It was my friend Jonas, asking if I had any interest in commenting on THAT Vanity Fair piece on CBC radio. Apparently the CBC had contacted him after reading his piece in New York Magazine in which he slammed the more fictional aspects of the piece and Jonas was, well, just kinda sick of the whole thing. And who can blame him?

Anyway, in between spritzing a variety of perfumes up the length of both my arms I told Jonas to go ahead and give the guy my contact details and I’d speak to him and hear what he had in mind.

Cut to around 30 minutes later. By this time we’re on the road, EPI is driving and YT is providing the entertainment as usual, when my cellphone rings. The guy on the other end introduces himself as Howard somebodyorother, producer of the CBC radio show The Current, and he tells me they want to do a bit on their show next Friday about the Icelanders’ belief in elves.

*oh groan*

So the guy starts firing questions. The conversation goes something like this:

HOWARD SOMEBODYOROTHER: Is it true the Icelanders believe in elves?
YT: Not elves. There are a lot of stories in Icelandic folklore about hidden people who lived inside boulders. I guess you could compare it to Native Indian beliefs that rocks and trees and everything else had their own spirit.
HSBOO: So people believe there are elves living inside rocks?
YT: NO. There is mythology about HIDDEN PEOPLE who lived in boulders.
HSBOO: So people don’t believe they live in rocks now.
YT: Come on. We’re living in the 21st century.
HSBOO: But this study shows that [some percentage] of people in Iceland believe in elves.
YT: Well, I haven’t seen that study so I can’t comment, but I have to wonder how scientific it is. Nobody I know believes in elves.
HSBOO: None of your friends, or …
YT: No.
HSBOO: That Vanity Fair piece claimed that when they were building the Alcoa plant they had to look for elf settlements before they could build it. Is that true?
YT: [laughing now; this was just too ridiculous] Um … I can’t imagine it’s true. Jonas wrote about that in his New York Mag piece and said it wasn’t true, and I’m presuming he checked with Alcoa.*
HSBOO: So … are there examples of construction or something being stopped because of elf homes?
YT: Actually, I have heard stories of that happening [excuses herself to check with EPI …] actually my husband says yes, that this did happen once, in Kópavogur, a small town …
HSBOO: When was that?
YT: [asks EPI] My husband thinks around 30 or 40 years ago.
HSBOO: Oh. [sounds disappointed that it was not, like, yesterday.] So you’ve not heard of this happening recently? There is no Ministry of Elf Inspection …? [as Jonas wrote in his article]
YT: [laughing] No!

Anyway, to cut a lengthy conversation short, the questions continued and they all revolved around elves and they were very clearly designed to elicit a predetermined response. Which, unfortunately for HSBOO, were not forthcoming from YT. He wanted me to pay lip service to his elf story, and I didn’t. Because it’s not real.

So finally he says something to the effect that it would be great if I could be on their show and they’ll have two other people on as well: some guy who runs an elf school [“you’ve heard of him?” “er, no…”] and also Terry Gunnell, a professor of Icelandic folklore at the University of Iceland. Because it would be good to get “different points of view”. He’d call me later in the week; the programme would be on Friday morning.

So I hung up and – honestly? I had a bad feeling. Like something was not quite upfront; like I was being manipulated. Still, I thought, how bad can it be? If they start trying to manipulate me on live radio all I have to do is answer to the best of my knowledge and ability. And then I put it out of my mind.

Cut to this morning. I open my email, and there is one from HSBOO. It reads:

it was great speaking with you the other day.  Unfortunately, the slot
that I thought the segment on Iceland and hidden people was going to be
on has changed.  It is now on a much shorter part of the show and so,
unfortunately we had to change the lineup and we will just be having
experts on the topic and Icelandic folklore on the show.  I apologize
for that.  But next time we do a segment on Iceland,  which I am sure
will not be in the too distant future, I will call you.

Heheh. The segment had changed? More like: they dropped me because I didn’t give them what they wanted. They wanted something sensational, something to propagate the WEIRD ICELANDERS cliché, and I just wasn’t jumping through the hoops. Hence they decided to go with the “experts”.

When EPI came home I related my little theory and he remarked that it would be interesting to listen to the show — would it be broadcast live online? I did a quick Google search, located their website — and this is what I found:

And when the American aluminum giant ALCOA wanted to build a smelter in Iceland, it had to first verify that the project wouldn’t trespass on land occupied by hidden people … or as most people know them, elves. And it turns out this is standard procedure in a country where half the population believes that elves are real.

[…!]

OK, the shocking thing is not this blatant manipulation of the truth, this bastardization of fact to fit their own agenda. No, the shocking thing is that this is fricking Canadian STATE BROADCASTING – a media outlet that is supposed to be credible and to have some sort of integrity.

And so I ask you: if they so blatantly and shamelessly exploit and maneuver the facts in this instance – then how do you know when they are actually telling the truth?

AND WE STILL HAVE LOTS OF WIND
It was pretty fierce today and blew the dust – that has emerged from beneath the snow – all around and into everyone’s nostrils. Seriously, I felt dusty all day today. Right now it is -2°C [28F – did I mention it’s cold?], the sun came up at 7.07 and went down at 8.01 pm.

* I talked to Jonas this evening and asked him — and indeed, he did verify the inaccuracy of the Vanity Fair piece with Alcoa.

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Stephen Cowdery March 27, 2009 at 1:55 am

Heaven forbid if a “journalist” might actually have to rewrite a story he probably had already written, which was probably just a rehash of something someone else copied from an old tourist guide, especially when his own research completely contradicted what he already had.
Maybe he used Oprah’s people for his source.

Daniel Hardarson March 27, 2009 at 2:15 am

Journalism is more creative writing that fact reporting these days. Write the news first, and look for evidence second, anything will do as evidence 🙂
The sad thing is, bit by bit, this misrepresentation/sensationalization of the truth (on even the most insignificant of stories) is having a distorting effect on the people see the world.

kevin o'connor waterford Ireland March 27, 2009 at 3:22 am

Do your elves hang around at the end of rainbows holding bags of gold like our Leprachauns if so good because I will definitely visit iceland sometime if that is the case

NWO March 27, 2009 at 3:39 am

Personally, I’m sort of disappointed. I for sure believe in elves!

Fred March 27, 2009 at 4:45 am

You could always call them up and interview them about the poll (www.angus-reid.com/uppdf/ARS_Evo_Cre.pdf) that reported that 42% of Canadians believe that dinosaurs and humans co-existed. Or the poll (http://www.marketwire.com/press-release/Ipsos-Reid-618230.html) that showed 47% believing in ghosts. Then you could do a broadcast about the quaint beliefs of the colorful natives of Canada.

Ljósmynd DE March 27, 2009 at 7:36 am

Those elves-stories are part of every touristy feature about Iceland on TV and in the press. Usually I find them quite boring and don’t know anybody in person, who is going for this stuff, but there seems to be a demand for it, unless the media use it just to fill some white space.

I have always considered this whole theme as driven by tourism related business to lure some special target groups into visiting Iceland. And if you take a look at the webpages of the Icelandic Tourism Board (from Iceland, that is, not from any other sensationalist foreign source), you find the following piece of “information” under the heading “Supernatural Iceland /
Elves, trolls and ghosts”:

Surveys show that despite their obsession with modern technology, as many as 80% of Icelanders believe in the existence of elves. Even today, roads have been rerouted and building plans redesigned or abandoned to avoid disturbing rocks where elves are said to live…

So, the 50% of CBC is certainly an adaptation of the exaggerating original Icelandic numbers. 😉

alda March 27, 2009 at 10:14 am

Heheh. Thanks everyone.

LDE – I’m kind of appalled that the Iceland Tourist Board should propagate that sort of misinformation. And I agree – in many cases it’s definitely a marketing scam. All those ‘hidden people tours’ etc.
Also I wonder about the scientific aspect of their study. “as many as” doesn’t sound very convincing.

On a more serious note, this entire distortion of the truth in journalism is alarming. In fact the excellent lecture I went to at SKUP dealt with this … how the truth is systematically being eliminated as reporter numbers are reduced and papers rely increasingly on news syndicates and – not least – press officers for their information. Apparently the number of press officers has risen exponentially in the last few years and now exceeds the numbers of working journalists (I seem to remember that this was in the UK). So there is continual distortion going on.

The lecture is here if anyone is interested.

Gudmundur March 27, 2009 at 10:26 am

Yeah, this elf-thing is pretty tiring. But there are a few people here that actually say “yes” when they are asked in surveys if they believe in elves, but I think that has more to do with the “yeah, sure” attitude of icelanders (also prevalent when asked if they are happy). Meaning basically, that some people may think this kind of fiction is an entertaining possibility (a bit like Santa) but when pushed would probably admit they don’t really believe in elves (that also implies that Icelander may not actually be the happiest people on earth…).

Rachel Down Under March 27, 2009 at 10:34 am

And a huge percentage of Americans believe in aliens. Does everyone therefore check for aliens in the US before doing anything? No? Really? No alien scan before digging a vegetable patch at the White House? Before the next Trump tower is built? Oh my, aren’t they just asking for trouble!

Modern media ‘ethics’ can be annoying, but I’m sure most people know what they are up to, so try not to fret too much. Mind you, Alcoa operates in Australia where they are required to take account of the ancient spiritual beliefs of the aboriginal land-owners, in particular sacred sites which are indiscernable to non-Aboriginals but have been of profound significance for tens of thousands of years. Perhaps they have been led to believe that elves are equally important in Iceland.

PS I’m open minded about elves – when I see one, I’ll believe. Ditto aliens and ghosts. And god(s).

Ljósmynd DE March 27, 2009 at 10:34 am

At least there doesn’t seem to result any obvious damage to the image of Iceland abroad, if foreign media are expatiating on this quaint foible – unlike the alleged blowing up of Range Rovers in the city center of Reykjavik, inferred in the Vanity Fair piece, which might trigger the completely false impression of lack of safety in Iceland for easily scared and uninitiated people.

Steve March 27, 2009 at 10:40 am

In fairness to the CBC, they are basing their statement on reports. Of course, the reports were likely performed by people with a vested interest in maintaining the myth. Really, what do you expect a professor of “folkloristics” to say? Then again, assuming there were no shenanigans in the sample selection, his method of sampling seems pretty fair. It’s even likely that city-dwellers (who you might expect to be more cosmopolitan) are over represented, assuming his students didn’t range that far from where they live.
http://www.grapevine.is/Home/ReadArticle/Elves-in-Cultural-Vocabulary

Anyway, the 1975 survey showed 55% believing that elves were possible to certain.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hulduf%C3%B3lk#Survey_results

It’s even possible that that wasn’t a massive exaggeration. As EPI noted, that was the same time the road plan in Kopavogur was altered.
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/13/international/europe/13elves.html

The interesting thing is that one one hand we have Jonas (an non-Icelander) and Alda (an, I’ll assume, educated Icelander) saying that they don’t know anybody who believes in elves. On the other we have a 2006 survey which apparently backs up the 1975 one, where 22% believed they were probably or certainly there. Anyone know a shepherd or an old person without a computer? Because, unless Terry is totally making it up, someone believes, even a little bit.

alda March 27, 2009 at 10:46 am

Rachel – sadly, I think most people don’t know what the media is up to when the truth is distorted in some way. That’s what’s scary.
And I like the point about the aliens in the vegetable patch. 🙂

LDE – oh, I definitely think this constitutes damage to Iceland’s image – it makes 80% of this nation sound like quacks! – seriously, I think it is undermining. The image that is created is designed to ridicule.

Karen* March 27, 2009 at 11:20 am

I’m not sure I should read blogs in the morning – I can be so grumpy…

Why is it okay for people to believe in a God (and just one, mind you, who is male) but NOT elves?

How do we really know what is out there? Why not believe what we want and leave everybody else alone? Who cares and why bother?

Anyway… yeah, the CBC’s reaction is shameful. But they’re under a lot of stress right now so I’m inclined to feel some compassion. Major job layoffs across the country and massive budget cuts hit them just two days ago.

Karen

Ng Yuk Ping March 27, 2009 at 11:30 am

Yes, it’s terrible when people from another culture or country want to characterise or stereotype yours with the purpose of being derogatory . Of course, if _you_ do it about them then that’s just fine:

YT speeching Chinese!

Jessica March 27, 2009 at 11:40 am

LDE is spot on with the “trolls = tourism” assertion. On my first and second visits to Iceland in 2005 & 2006, I couldn’t seem to escape the “hidden people” references at the tourist hot spots. All the tourist shops, and even waysides on Highway 1, seem to have a minimum of 100 units of troll figurines per square meter. And in my 2006 visit to the wonderful restaurant Rauða Húsið in Eyrabakki (where I thought we’d be safe from tourism ad nauseum), there was a Ghost Center van parked in the lot. Care for some huldufólk with your lobster soup?
P.S. Icelandair actually advertises a “Ghosts and More” tour to their U.S. market: http://www.icelandair.us/offers-and-bookings/book-packages/package/item202580/

Vikingisson March 27, 2009 at 12:10 pm

Oh my, the mighty CBC has finally lost the little bit of integrity they had left. The saddest thing to me is that they are still the best we have in all of N.A. Perhaps they have discovered that the once tiny minority of former news hounds like myself that long ago gave up listening to any network based news is now a desired market. I’m always in the niche market that all companies hate, we aren’t worth the effort and will always call their bluff. Now the little numbers count. But they are wrong to think that being like all the rest will attract me.

Canada is finally feeling the kreppa and the CBC has been slashed and burned to save money. Of course they have to keep the top talking heads but why would they keep the people behind the scenes if they can hire Howard the Duck for minimum wage plus benefits. The CBC has always done the better documentaries and delight in debunking the crap coming from everyone else. Now they are jumping on the same ignorant bandwagon it seems.

Well I’m off to pray to the great spaghetti monster so that I might win the lottery and be protected from aliens and not experience any natural calamities such as hurricanes or angry elves.

alda March 27, 2009 at 12:17 pm

Steve – In fairness to the CBC, they are basing their statement on reports. — that may be, but they specifically called me for a “different viewpoint”. However, when my viewpoint does not fit in with their predetermined account of the story, it is dropped. I don’t think that demonstrates much fairness.

Ng Yuk Ping – if you read a bit further down in the post you will see that I also wrote “YT speeching in English.” I meant no disrespect to the Chinese — it’s just my warped sense of humor.

Jessica – I wonder why the CBC doesn’t just interview the Iceland Tourist Board and Icelandair. They clearly seem to have the weird Icelander-elf image down pat.

Ljósmynd DE March 27, 2009 at 12:28 pm

To my opinion this stuff is more designed to ridicule the tourists, who come to Iceland focussed on visiting the elves or the people, who really believe that Icelanders believe in elves. I have never met anybody in Germany, who would have derided Icelanders for their alleged belief in the existence of elves. I think, there is a widespread perception of this as just some clever marketing.

Steve March 27, 2009 at 12:41 pm

@ Rachel Down Under.
Aliens? We have plenty of “aliens”, in fact they probably helped to dig that vegetable patch. 🙂

Vikingisson March 27, 2009 at 12:43 pm

I tried to register for the forums at the CBC but so far the confirmation email hasn’t arrived so maybe that is another segment that got slashed (I.T. is always the first to go). I would contact George at The Hour ( http://www.cbc.ca/thehour/ ) and get them to mention this, the CBC has often poked fun at themselves. Or try clicking that Citizen Satire Challenge link on The Current since they invite you to satire their own stories. You Alda could do a great piece.

I want for learning to speeching Icelandic.*
* meaning no disrespect nor stereotyping a culture. But come on, this can be funny. I’m not Chinese either and speeching Chinese is also funny. sue me.

James March 27, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Wikipedia’s “huldufólk” page directed me to this rather intriguing article in The Reykjavik Grapevine:
http://www.grapevine.is/Features/ReadArticle/pleasure-youself-with-an-elf

alda March 27, 2009 at 1:38 pm

James – sensationalism? I rest my case. 🙂

alda March 27, 2009 at 1:41 pm

Víkingsson – clearly the slot wasn’t cancelled because I’m already receiving a number of google search hits with ‘Iceland elves’ ‘elf school Iceland’ and variations thereof.

namme March 27, 2009 at 1:47 pm

Hm well, I have never really given the CBC much credit, and if you read the comments of the people who actually do post on their website, you’ll kind of get an idea of what sorts of people actually do like the CBC (they are so annoying, I swear). They are also pretty out of touch with society in Canada, not to mention the rest of the world. They think we want to watch George Stroumboulopouloswhatever his name is prattle on about nothing the average Canuck cares about.

Secondly, most Folklore professors piss me off to such an extent! The folklore department at my uni is full of professors who really… er, well I do not agree with them on anything, and most of the courses or things they teach seem to be a sham. I mean, they twist the definitions on what folklore even is, just so they can have enough material to make a programme out of it…

But, I think it’s too bad that people don’t really believe in Elves anymore, because really, it’s as non-sensical to believe in Elves as it is to be Christian or Muslim or whatever. Elves are just cooler though :p (and I guess they’ve been around longer, they have seniority.)

JBJ March 27, 2009 at 3:37 pm

“this did happen once, in Kópavogur, a small town …”
Yes, in the same way Reykjavík is a small city 😉

Whilst on a global scale Kópavogur is a small town, on the icelandic scale it is the largest..

Vikingisson March 27, 2009 at 4:40 pm

Personally I still say that the CBC is better than the rest. But that is relative to the contempt I feel for most networks and the outright ban I have on CnN, FoX, and most so called news. As a general network, meh, they just suck less than most. As for the perceived left leaning whining stature they are known for, I don’t know and don’t much care. A show is a show and I don’t know for the rest. We can all hate the George Strombotweet “your boyfriend George yada yada”, but The Hour is pretty decent when I catch it. (I don’t own a t.v.)

Alda, I have my next blog post in my head but you are free to steal it. “Six Degrees of Álfaskólinn” or something such as that. I want to connect the Vanity Fair article to all the fallout and back to the head elf (now angry) if there is one.

But let’s laugh about it all, it takes about one day for the media to move on to the next raison d’être and the cause for all things evil, unless we feed it too much.

JoeInVegas March 27, 2009 at 5:45 pm

Now I’m starting to wonder about Iceland, and whether it really exists or is something made up by them. (you know, them, the ones that make things up). YT is probably living in the south of France or someplace warm and using Photoshop to create images of an imaginary place. I’ll have to take a poll among fellow Las Vegans and see how many people really believe in Iceland.

And comments are back!!! Yea!!!! Hope you don’t get too many negative ones.

wally March 27, 2009 at 7:18 pm

Is it possible that the programme on CBC was a more light hearted segment of the daily broadcast and not ´news´.
I think this is an important piece of context for this subject.
Because seriously I dont think anybody really believes in elves and the radio programmers know that the people listening also probably know this.

Vikingisson March 27, 2009 at 8:44 pm

Joe, a recent survey by the esteemed non partisan corporation Them Inc. has concluded that 35% of Amerikans believe in Iceland with 10% of them convinced that it is an independent country. However only 2% of the true believers could find it on a globe. But it was explained that: “faith is all we really need, the great Elf Jebus will guide us when the time comes”

Vikingisson March 27, 2009 at 9:51 pm

I forgot to mention that the same Them Inc performed a similar survey in Iceland. They used the phonebook for contact info and had a 100% response rate so the results are considered accurate (+-301,000).
95% believed in Iceland, 85% could find it on a globe, but only 50% were convinced that Iceland is an independent country.
The higher results for finding Iceland on a globe was attributed to the fact that they were already there. Believe in Iceland was not so easily explained so a new study about the education system is to be performed. The state church has drafted a few suggestions already.

Karen* March 27, 2009 at 10:57 pm

The actual segment of the show is here:
http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/2009/200903/20090327.html

Scroll down, it’s the second section of the show.

My husband and I just finished listening to it and agreed that is …. painful.

But frankly, you can’t entirely blame the CBC when your own people are willing to let themselves be laughed at in the international press.

Ljósmynd DE March 27, 2009 at 11:17 pm

I forgot to tell, that I received a book about the hidden people as bonus, when I did my last year’s subscription of the Iceland Review print edition. Actually, it has quite nice pictures and refers to the aforementioned surveys about the belief of the Icelanders in elves and huldufólk living in rocks. So, when it is not too obtrusively commercialized, the elves stuff can be quite entertaining and far away from ridiculing anybody.

And I am really a fan of the 13 jólasveinar without suspecting the majority of Icelanders to actually believe in the existence of the yule lads. Of course, Jólakötturinn must exist somewhere in Iceland, don’t tell me anything else. 😉

Steve UK March 28, 2009 at 9:34 am

Thanks Karen. Actually it’s good that Alda wasn’t included, as it left room for Jerry Marren at the end 😀 .

I thought Terry Gunnel came across very well, so I take back what I said earlier about him (posting as Steve). Magnus Skarphedinsson (yes, he is related to the minister) was, umm, a little more out there, but there was some interesting insight into how the issue of elves might affect planning.

The worst bit about it wasn’t actually the guests or what they said, but the presenter’s attitude. Pretty much summed up in that parargraph Alda posted in the blog – the underlying message may be reasonable, but use of “had” to first verify and “believes” that elves are real was not.

maja April 2, 2009 at 6:59 am

Wouldn’t want to let the truth get in the way of a good story!

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