News Bias and True Information About Japan: Presentation Summary and Comments
This is from International Media Forum in Tokyo, which was held at Maharaja Indian Restaurant in Odakyu Southern Tower on November 12, 2002.
Takahiro Miyao (Professor, GLOCOM)
Is Japan losing its clout and popularity in the global audience? Are the terms "Japan-passing", "Japan-nothing", etc. partly a result of traditional media's bias, which works against Japan?
First, there is a definite media bias, because "news" virtually means "change," while often ignoring "level." Therefore, China tends to be treated in a positive way, as the Chinese economy is moving in the positive direction, whereas Japan gets such negative publicity since Japan's economy has been stagnant or even shrinking in nominal terms, despite the fact that the overall level of economic activity is still among the highest in the world.
Second, there appears to be traditional journalists' "consensus" as to how to treat Japan, especially among established media in the Kisha Club circle in Japan and the so-called Eastern Establishment in the U.S. They almost always tell the same story that Japan needs radical reform, but have no will to do it, and nothing will change in the near future. They have criticized the recent Koizumi-Takenaka plan for banking reform in much the same way, while among economists and even the general public there are much more diverse opinions, pros and cons, regarding the Koizumi-Takenaka plan.
While there appears to be not much (good) news about Japan's economy from journalists' viewpoint, partly because of their bias, there are increasing activities in various other fields, most notably, national security, traditional and youth culture (sometimes referred to as "Gross National Cool"), engineering and technology. Furthermore, new social changes and trends are taking place beneath the surface, and being reported not necessarily in traditional media, but in new media such as online journalism like "2 channel" in Japan.
Even in the economic and business field, the absolute level of activity in Japan is as high as that in the U.S. or Europe, and much higher than that in any other Asian country such as China, even though net changes in Japan seem to have been small or even negative for the last few years. This means that there should be so many interesting things about Japan's economy to explore for serious research and international comparisons, but these things tend to be overlooked by traditional journalists.
In conclusion, we need to develop a system of interaction and dialogue among journalists, scholars and policy makers for them to learn each other in Japan. At the same time, special efforts are required to disseminate correct information from Japan in English and other foreign languages as much as we can to correct misunderstanding about Japan overseas.
Marc Beliveau (GLOCOM Fellow)
Dear Dr Miyao,
Thank you so much for your thoughtful and provocative presentation. Many people have enjoyed your participation and the topic you have addressed at the International Media Forum.
The controversial question that you have raised in regards to the existence of a "consensus" among the traditional media is not accurate, even if it is partly true, because what may appear to be a common editorial position in news reporting is never done in a "consensual way". Actually, media organisations are fully aware of a certain level of systemic conformity that exists in their news coverage and with their competitors. This is frequently discussed in newsrooms, particularly in regards to institutional and political news coverage (considering also the dangers of incestuous relationships between politicians and journalists). People making editorial decisions are certainly using their own stereotypes, perceptions and hopefully a good judgement to carry out their duties. In that regard, despite an old saying "don't let the facts in the way of a good story", in reality, the facts are what drive newsrooms and its people. In that sense, making sure that you haven't missed a good story is probably more important than finding out that the editorial approach used in the presentation of a news item is similar to your competitors.
While editorial policies in various news organisations are not likely to be exactly the same, there are always difficult choices to be made. For example, you may decide not to cover a Greenpeace story as this NGO is well known for its expert way of manipulating the media. It always offers the media some very spectacular militant activities (good visuals for television). Therefore, if you decide not to cover the event, you face the possibility of being asked by people who watched (or read) the story elsewhere if you haven't missed a story? Some people may go further in suggesting that your media outlet has an anti-environment bias? Such criticism is part of the news business and despite the competition between media organisations, it is easy to find stories being reported in a similar way in various newspapers or to see the same experts being interviewed on various television programs. Do alternative media have something different to offer?
You have spoken highly of alternative sources of information such as on-line journalism as being more progressive than the so-called traditional news sources of information and perhaps as being more grounded to the reality and what is happening in a society. Some people might suggest that information not being filtered by a journalist might be more worthwhile by itself. Personally, I tend to believe that good journalists would be interested in searching for all news sources, including information from the internet. For that reason, I don't really see the traditional media necessarily colliding with the new on-line media. A reporter's job remains to provide the facts and to find original news angles. As for the alternative media, they play a complementary role in providing additional facts and opinions and perhaps in offering stimulating debates occasionally.
The problem with traditional journalism relates much more with its own limitations in regards to its editorial approach. The world of journalism exists through "issues" being used to portray the reality. These so-called issues are far from being objective. They are always pre-determined by a set of editorial judgements and priorities according to the readers/viewers you want to reach. I would imagine that an American journalist covering Japan would have in mind a set of similar editorial guidelines. It serves as a common ground to discus with the editorial desk in New York or Los Angeles. The same is true for Japanese correspondents based in London or Washington.
News priorities in covering Japan would be as follow:
- Global news events happening in Japan (ex – the G-8 meeting held in Okinawa)
- The Japan-US relations (ex – any diplomatic, commercial and security issues)
- News items related to the US presence in Japan (ex—US soldiers accused of rape in Okinawa )
- The role of Japan in the region ( ex - Japan-Singapore free trade agreement)
- Japanese politics and economy & local news (ex - political scandals, anti-deflation initiatives)
- Feature stories (ex - street fashion in Shibuya, etc)
There is nothing wrong with having news priorities and targeted audiences as long as everybody knows what purposes it serves. Information has become a commodity with its own market. For example, should foreign news coverage reflect what is really happening in the Japanese society or should it be to stimulate an interest from readers and viewers living abroad who know very little about Japan? In a certain way, some journalistic issues are like pre-packaged products serving as safeguards to sustain the news business industry and its commercial activities.
Having produced thirty seven television documentaries in four different countries for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation over the last six years, I know the limits of looking at the reality through journalistic issues. Let me take an example. When I started the production of a documentary about the aboriginal people in Australia, I did proceed like any journalist would do. First, I have identified a list of the current issues: aboriginal people = no political power, poverty, a lost generation, discrimination, land claims battles ... almost everything appears quite negative. At the concluding phase of the Aboriginal Reconciliation process in 2000, the strongest support to resolve aboriginal issues in Australia was originating from influential urban areas such as Sydney and Melbourne.
In doing my research, I noticed that aboriginal issues generated some guilty feelings among people from the white middle class who believed there has been wrong doing in the past. This would explain why they wanted a positive outcome from the Aboriginal Reconciliation process, even though the conservative Prime minister John Howard has always refused to say "I am sorry". In any case, I realised that white Australians perceived aboriginal people mostly through the same set of negative issues that I have identified myself as a journalist (some kind of a "consensual way" to portray the reality). In fact, these same issues were becoming an obstacle to understand what was really happening in various aboriginal communities. Furthermore, I have met very few people in Sydney or Melbourne who have ever talked or knew any real aboriginal people themselves. Their knowledge of aboriginal people and their communities were through a set of mental images and a series of insoluble issues.
Therefore, I decided to put aside these issues and to focus on personal stories of aboriginal people who were doing something to change the situation in their communities. I would choose ordinary people who have done something unique. I wanted the viewers to understand the success of some individuals in solving problems and I wished to provide an opportunity to see through aboriginal eyes the complexity of the problems they face and the energy they will use to resolve them. It seems to me that taking a human approach to the story would reveal much more about aboriginal people and the reality existing in their communities (without referring to judgmental or pre-determined issues). The documentary would also convey a message that there are individuals in various aboriginal communities who are doing something to change the situation. The same is true for the white Australian communities – meaning that true "reconciliation" is therefore a two ways communication challenge.
In that perspective, the so-called traditional media, in focusing its news coverage with predictable and conventional issues, often failed in its attempt to provide us with a better understanding of the reality and the dynamics of change. Therefore, we must realise that journalistic issues are never objective (as they claim to be) and they carry their own limitations in presenting the reality. Secondly, information as a commodity has it own rules like making cakes that must fit into their own boxes. Thirdly, there is no need to shoot the messengers as journalists are trying to do a decent job either in traditional or alternative media. However, it must be said that once in a while, those who "pump the stuff" have less and less time to do a good research.