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Japan’s media tug of war

Accuracy, self-censorship challenge news outlets
Written by Katy Spence

Asahi TV had a scoop for the late night airing of Hodo Station, but the chief editor held back.


Leaked emails showed that the prime minister promoted a major project backed by a friend and that he pressured an agency to accelerate its acceptance. It was an abuse of power by the prime minister, and it was clearly a scoop. Still, the chief of the news division needed to confirm it was true. The newsroom was haunted by a 2006 incident involving a fake email and incomplete reporting. The lawmaker who had shared that email -- he didn’t know it was fake -- committed suicide several years later. The press hadn’t done due diligence to check the email’s veracity.

The control room at Asahi TV station in Tokyo hums with activity during a live broadcast on May 25, 2017. Photo by Katy Spence 

Without fact-based decision making, this new scoop risked becoming another victim of self-censorship of the Japanese media, a tradition rooted in politics, access and criticism.


Yamano Takayuki has been a journalist at Asahi TV for 20 years and is currently working as the assignment desk for the evening newscast Hodo Station, a position equivalent to the executive producer in American broadcast studios. While Takayuki does not believe official censorship exists in Japan anymore, he said the Japanese tradition of press clubs can lead to self-censorship.


Press clubs, or “kisha,” are groups of journalists situated in many government and industry buildings who pay a monthly fee for proximity to sources and information. While member journalists are privy to unparalleled access, those who step out of line and report on sensitive information can just as easily be banned from the club. Japanese journalists will often not report a story for fear of losing this valuable access, Takayuki said. Asahi TV has chosen several times not to run a story that would jeopardize a press club membership.


Takayuki said this self-restriction led to what many critics call poor domestic coverage of 3.11 events. His reporters covered panic at the airports, mothers and children desperate to evacuate following the earthquake and tsunami. But the city news section leader didn’t want to broadcast that video, saying it could cause more chaos and panic. The station didn’t run the story.


Former New York Times reporter Martin Fackler covered the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami aftermath. He said the Japanese media did an excellent job of covering the earthquake and tsunami, as well as providing safety information related to the natural disaster. But when the crisis shifted to the nuclear disaster -- caused by human error -- the Japanese media backed off.


“Natural disasters don’t have politics,” he said. “This was a man-made industrial disaster caused by disastrously bad decisions.”


“There was a lack of informed speculation,” David McNeill, author and reporter for The Economist, said. “Experts in Japan could say by Week Two that there was a meltdown, but there was an extreme reliance on government information.” The Japanese media did not report a meltdown was occurring at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant until long after it was reported by the foreign press. They waited for the official government report.

Failure to report news the government wants to delay have led many Japanese citizens to distrust the Japanese  media. A 2016 Reuters report indicated that only around 25 percent of Japanese citizens believe the media is free from business or political influence.

'Those who step out of line and report on sensitive information can just as easily be banned from the club.'

Asahi TV cameramen shoot video of a printed email that indicates Prime Minister Abe Shinzo acted out of nepotism. Photo by Katy Spence 

Haruka Kaneko, a young hotel worker, said Japanese adults like herself don’t pay much attention to mass media. They spend more time on popular culture sites and social media, like Instagram.


“When there is big news, they don’t say much important things for us,” she said. “Sometimes they lie.”


She thinks that this distrust of mass media is what leads young people to choose social networks for communication and news consumption over the mainstream media.


David Slater, an anthropologist who teaches at Sophia University in Tokyo, said the failure of the media and the government to respond immediately to 3.11 opened the door to citizen journalism and social media.


Slater called 3.11 “the first fully social mediate disaster,” in which the new platforms allowed people to connect across boundaries and bypass mass media all together.


Victims of the tsunami reached out for help through Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. The watching world used the same media to respond, sending money, supplies and logistical support to victims they learned about through social media, Slater said.

“The government only listens to experts,” he said. “And the mass media tries to fit these stories into their own narrative.” Social media allowed people to tell their own stories, he said.


Slater said unequal media coverage created unequal aid distribution. Places with “sadder stories” received more aid, whereas other places without coverage received less aid. The media are considered “karasu,” or crow, he said. “They come along to take the juicy bits,” and then leave.


After 3.11, a new critical spotlight put Japanese domestic media center-stage. The 2014 state secrecy law punishes civil servants and journalists who share sensitive government information. These stricter restrictions earned the country a rating of 72 on the 2017 Reporters Without Borders annual Press Freedom list. The country’s highest rating was 11 in 2010, two years before Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began his second term.


Back at Asahi TV for the evening newscast, Abe’s face filled half-a-dozen screens in the control room, as employees watched the breaking news story air. Takayuki watched, too, pleased that the piece had aired. Both the fact-checking process and strong executive decision making had confirmed the emails and lead to the scoop.


“A self-restricted mind is the most dangerous,” he said, “The most risk to my country’s journalists.”

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