How to Decode Swedish Television

The following is a translation of a guide that was distributed to employees of the news service of the Swedish state television network (Sveriges Television, or SVT) in late 2015.

Tips and Language Advice to Take into Account while Describing Sweden

General starting points

Being Swedish today includes people who have different appearances, experiences, and cultures. It is part of the mission of the SVT to cover everyone’s daily life. It is important that we express ourselves in an inclusive manner, and not describe anyone in an offensive way.

Co-workers at SVT News must always question whether a person’s origin is relevant to a news story, and if so, be able to explain why.1

At SVT News, we take it for granted that people have the right to define themselves. If it is relevant, those concerned should be asked in what way they prefer to be described. But this does not mean that individuals can make themselves a spokesperson for the groups they belong to, as in for example an Iranian woman claiming that the veil is oppressive for Muslim women.


Do not generalise regarding ethnic communities, neighbourhoods, or religions. Avoid the vague and often misused term immigrant, and do not use it as a prefix, as in ‘immigrant families’, as many people today regarded as immigrants were born in Sweden.

SVT News uses the term Swede for anyone with Swedish citizenship. We prefer the use of ‘Swede’ over Swedish subject’ in order to avoid distinguishing between Swedes. If it is necessary to be more precise, as in cases that involve terrorism, a phrasing like this can be used: ‘a Swede affiliated with violent Islamic militants’. When the subject matter is a broader group, phrases like ‘those who live in Sweden’ should be used, and where appropriate we can mention that a person has dual citizenship, as in the case of Dawit Isaak (Isaak is a native-born Eritrean journalist who took Swedish citizenship in 1992, and who has been imprisoned by the Eritrean government since 2001, allegedly for calling for democratic reforms there; the Swedish government continues to campaign for his release-Ed.).

If a major disaster or terrorist attack occurs abroad, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs will inform us whether or not Swedish citizens have been killed. Note that the Ministry’s first statements do not always cover all of those who live in Sweden, since they may not be of Swedish citizenship. This might apply to a Greek national who has been a resident of Sweden for a long time.

In reporting statistics, it is important to note how scientists use different terms. Be aware that various investigations and reports use the terms in different ways and that you need to elaborate their definition to the viewers in order for them to understand the news item accurately. Words such as domestic or foreign-born can be used, but remember that a foreign-born person can also be Swedish, and that the terms are not necessarily contradictory.

The term foreign origin can be used; the concept is defined by Statistics Sweden as a person born abroad or born in Sweden with two foreign-born parents. In statistics it is also common to refer to a non-Nordic-born or a person born outside of Europe. If you want to vary the way you express it, you can use the broader term foreign roots.


Avoid classifying people as much as possible. However, there are circumstances when someone’s background and/or appearance are of relevance to the story.2 When the subject of a report is discrimination or a hate crime, a person’s appearance is of particular relevance for its clarity. In SVT News reports, it should be made clear that it is the offender’s perspective that excludes Swedish people.3

If someone claims that he or she has been subjected to discrimination or a hate crime, we proceed from the person’s own experience with formulations such as ‘she perceived that she was subjected to abuse because of her skin colour’.


We find it difficult to come up with other examples of situations where we need to describe skin colour other than those mentioned above. But if it is done, the descriptions must be as concrete as possible.

The starting point is always to ask the person concerned how he or she wants to be described. When this is not possible, use words that match the person’s appearance: white, light-skinned, ruddy, East Asian appearance, dark-skinned, black. Note that the descriptions of skin colour are sensitive, and be aware that the use of terms like black or dark-skinned may raise criticism.

We should never use phrases like ‘people of ethnic origin’ (this is because everyone has an ethnic origin). Avoid terms like coloured/African descent/of a different skin colour. Do not simply use the terminology of the police (like the TT News Agency does).


Socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods are sometimes described as immigrant neighbourhoods; in other words, national background is used as an explanation for something, but this does not help the viewer to understand what we want to communicate. Moreover, many residents of the so-called immigrant areas are themselves Swedes. When you are referring to a type of neighbourhood, be as specific as possible about what you want to describe. If the area has a high unemployment level among its citizens and a low electoral participation, it is more specific to say: ‘X is an area with high unemployment and with low electoral participation’. Concepts such as ‘socially/economically disadvantaged area‘ are acceptable, but it is better to be even more specific.4 Avoid using the standard term ‘suburb‘, other than perhaps to describe that it is just a cliché.

This is a living document that should be reviewed at least once a year. This is the responsibility of the divisional manager at SVT News.

Short glossary and footnotes


Swedish Swedish citizen
Newly arrived Can be used to describe people who have come to Sweden within the past year and who are still trying to establish themselves in society.
Segregated school Can be used, but be careful as to what the segregation refers to. There are many different types of segregated schools. What is it that is to be described? Try to be as specific as possible, as in, ‘The school has a high proportion of pupils who are newly arrived/do not have Swedish as their mother tongue/low proportion of students with highly-educated parents’. A segregated school can also include many students with special needs.
Refugee Refugee can be used as a term, but preferably vary the usage with ‘people who are fleeing’.
Asylum seekers Asylum seekers refers to anyone who comes to Sweden and applies for protection here, but who has not yet had their application processed.
EU migrants The most accepted term among both authorities and the media, but the term can still be problematic. All EU migrants, for example, are not beggars or socially disadvantaged. Other terms to be used are socially disadvantaged EU migrants or homeless EU migrants.
Beggars The term beggars can be used, but it covers both the beggars who come from other countries as well as Swedish beggars. Can be varied with the term ‘people who are begging’.


  1. In a feature which we broadcast, it was mentioned that a Belgian lawyer who represented terror suspects had a Moroccan background. It may have been relevant in the context, but only if the lawyer himself held it to be of importance, and in that case an explanation should have been presented.
  2. In reporting on the IKEA murders (on 10 August 2015, an Eritrean Christian named Abraham Ukbagabir murdered two random Swedes in an IKEA in Västerås-Ed.), SVT decided to publish details about the man’s life situation and background. The reason was that those factors could provide an explanation of the killer’s motive. Shortly before the murders, the man had had his asylum application rejected and was soon to be expelled to Eritrea.
  3. In a live broadcast on the Trollhättan school killings (on 22 October 2015, Anton Lundin Pettersson killed two non-white teachers and a non-white student with a sword, and wounded several others, at the Kronan School before being shot to death by police-Ed.), we describe the offender’s choice of victims as ‘not fully Swedish’. A correct formulation would have been that ‘the killer chose people he did not conceive of as being Swedes’.
  4. We have described Molenbeek in Brussels as an ‘immigrant area’. Molenbeek is a neighbourhood with ninety thousand inhabitants. Twenty-five per cent of them are unemployed and youth unemployment is as high as thirty-seven per cent. There was a supply of weapons, and many residents also have a problematic relationship with the authorities. It would have been more correct to highlight some of these factors rather than to use the general term ‘immigrants’ to denote the entire area.
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