Editorial | When good organisations do bad things

People who want to save the world have agendas too

Last week, public health officials released a Danish Heart Association-funded study showing that a massive increase in the price of cigarettes would reduce the number of smokers by 80,000. Most media outlets, including The Copenhagen Post, reported the story.


The same articles also included a statistic that there are a million smokers in Denmark. Some quick maths will show that the near doubling in price would reduce the number of smokers by 8 percent. No media outlets, this one included, questioned whether the marginal reduction would be proportional to the consequences of the higher prices. 


Like the Danish Heart Association, we’d prefer it if people didn’t smoke – maybe so much so that we lost our ability to be critical of a message coming from an organisation that the public, again including us, feel works for the public good. 


As journalists, we’re not alone. According to a recent study conducted by the union Journalistforbundet, journalists tend to place organisations into two groups. The ‘good guys’ get fewer critical questions. ‘Bad guys’ can’t catch a break. 


In the case of the proposed cigarette price hikes, it would have been worthwhile to find out what else would have happened beyond the decline in smoking rates. Would the number of people heading to Germany to buy cheap cigarettes increase – thus robbing the Danish state of tax income? 


Or one could have asked whether smokers actually wind up costing society less than non-smokers, as some studies indicate.


While being too soft on the ‘good guys’ leads to overly-simplified solutions to social problems, being too hard on the ‘bad guys’ makes it all too easy to narrowly focus on the nit-picks instead of the greater good. 


Swap out the Danish Heart Association and smoking with Metroselskabet and the City Ring. The construction of the 17-station underground line is one of the country’s largest-ever public works projects, and when completed it will vastly improve mobility in the city. Unfortunately, the construction is noisy, which puts off a lot of people. 


Angry people make good news stories. So the underlying tone of the articles about the situation is that Metroselskabet are bastards who think more about completing the construction on time than the plight of a handful of residents. This happens even though the vast majority of area residents would be more affected by delays due to noise complaints than due to the noise itself. 


What the articles don’t tell us is that people living near the new Metro stations will see the value of their homes skyrocket, or that air quality will improve, since the City Ring will result in fewer buses on the road.


More money and cleaner air. With enemies like these, who needs friends?