Research at Sophia

Why do Political "Scoops" Come from the Weekly Magazines—Role Distribution and Political Neutrality in the Media

Yoshihiro Oto
(Professor, Department of Journalism, Faculty of Humanities)

This interview was edited and compiled from a conversation in Japanese and then translated into English.*

The Value of Weekly Magazines as "Mischief-Makers"

Yoshihiro Oto, Professor, Department of Journalism, Faculty of Humanities

Two big scandals that rocked Japan's political world last year had their origins in scoops by the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun. They were the resignation over bribery allegations of Akira Amari, the Minister in charge of Economic Revitalization, and the allegations of improper use of political funds that forced the resignation of Tokyo governor Yoichi Masuzoe. The magazine in question may have an established reputation for its information gathering capabilities, but even so, how is such a weekly magazine able to consistently outdo the major newspapers and television stations, which boast a large number of political reporters pursuing systematic information gathering on a daily basis?

Actually, this is not a recent development. It was, for example, the monthly magazine Bungeishunju that brought the downfall of Kakuei Tanaka—who wielded enormous influence as Japan's prime minister from 1972 to 1974—by reporting on his financial dealings. In this case, some political editors assigned to cover Tanaka are said to have divulged that they had long been aware of the allegations about Tanaka's financial dealings. But whether they were telling the truth or not, it is beyond doubt that media stances toward politics and the political world vary according to the temperaments of different media entities.

Newspapers and television represent institutional journalism, and as such their role is to report on political developments on a continuous basis. In order to do so, they penetrate the political world and the ranks of politicians as a means of informing the public about what happens there. Over the long term, the major media corporations can provide a stream of important political information to the public via information gathering underpinned by their power as organizations. But at the same time, the corporations' continual immersion in a reporting environment that is itself part of the political world risks a significant mismatch between their perceptions of situations and our intuitive sense of rectitude and justice as regular citizens.

By contrast, publications such as publishing house-affiliated magazines depend for their survival on the number of copies sold every issue. Since it is not their role to gather information within the political world on an ongoing basis, they can write daring articles that create a stir among readers without having to worry about it causing problems in future. Instead, they promptly withdraw from the issue in question when the readers' interest dies down.

In a sense, these magazines are mischief-makers, but I think that one of the things they do is to penetrate these mismatches between the perceptions of the major media corporations and of regular citizens to sound the alarm bells. By this I mean that, regardless of which media entities are better or worse than the others, the ideal situation is precisely one in which a diverse range of media exist and roles are distributed among them according to their respective strengths and weaknesses. And by understanding these differences in roles, I think we as readers and viewers can better interpret the news as reported by the various entities.

Political Neutrality Redefined

Yoshihiro Oto, Professor, Department of Journalism, Faculty of Humanities

Last year was also the year in which Sanae Takaichi, the Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications, responded to questions in the Diet regarding the Minister's interpretation of the Broadcast Act. In her response she indicated that the government could potentially order broadcasters off the air if they were deemed to be insufficiently "politically fair." As is well known, this interpretation was regarded as an infringement of freedom of speech and expression, and it triggered major debate and opposition.

However, I believe that Takaichi's statement reflected an intention to contain the media in the run-up to the anticipated upper house election in order to ensure positive coverage for the government. This is unsurprising, and could even be described as a well-worn political ploy for a member of a governing party, and in particular a member of the Abe administration, which is very concerned about how it is portrayed by the media.

Nonetheless, Takaichi's statement differs from the prevailing view in academic circles, and if the government forced a broadcaster off the air in accordance with Takaichi's interpretation of the law, Japan's democracy would be called into doubt throughout the international community. Since Japanese citizens are also unlikely to condone such action, it is probably impossible to actually apply this interpretation of the law. That is why the media should stand firm.

Incidentally, the phrase "politically fair" does appear in the Broadcast Act, although political fairness is not stipulated in Japan's press code. The US presidential election was under way when Takaichi made her statement, and as a result the Japanese public were well aware that US newspapers clearly indicate which candidate they support—in other words, they are not neutral at all. In sections containing news-related articles, newspapers must of course communicate the unadorned facts fairly, but expressing their own opinions freely on the editorial pages is what newspapers are supposed to do.

By contrast, broadcasting is bound by the licensing system, and there is a law stipulating political neutrality. It is fair to say that this system was created in an age when the broadcasting signal was a rare "resource," and now that technological development has enabled multiple channels and the media as a whole have diversified, the system is no longer warranted.

However, from the perspective of the role distribution mentioned earlier, it could still be considered beneficial in terms of restoring the health of the media as a whole for the newspapers and broadcasters still at its heart to fulfill differing functions according to the different environments and requirements they face.

Yet Japan's newspapers have a tendency to be too fixated on neutrality, even though it should not even be required of them. This is probably due to organizational issues in Japanese newspaper companies, which fail to completely separate their news and editorial sections, as well as to the naivety of Japanese society, and it is one of the problems currently facing the Japanese media.

A Forum for Learning Journalism Firsthand

Yoshihiro Oto, Professor, Department of Journalism, Faculty of Humanities

Last year, a research team made up of myself and other Department of Journalism faculty members conducted research on coverage of the upper house election. We came to the conclusion that last year's upper house election coverage could be described as "subdued." The volume of television coverage in particular had decreased in comparison with the previous upper house election, in addition to which the content was predominantly superficial, featuring insufficient in-depth analysis.

It is difficult to state categorically that there was a causal relationship between the above-mentioned containment of the media by Takaichi and the subdued coverage, or to elucidate the extent to which coverage may have been affected. Nonetheless, it is easy to imagine that her statement put pressure on the media, and it is clear that most of the space available for political news was split between the two topics of governor Masuzoe's resignation and the subsequent election of a new Tokyo governor.

Yet, however much of an issue it may have been for Japan's capital, Tokyo, surely the television news on nationwide networks should have prioritized the national election over the problems relating to the capital's governor. According to public-opinion polls and other indicators prior to the election, the upper house election was expected to be advantageous to the governing parties. If broadcasters consequently regarded the election result as predetermined and seized upon the problems relating to the capital's governor as a topic promising higher audience ratings, then we must question whether they fulfilled their journalistic role.

The Department of Journalism is a center of research that examines the current state of the media within society from an academic perspective. At the same time, it also prides itself on being one of a limited number of centers of education for media and journalism that cultivate talented people with a journalistic spirit.

During the department's long history since its founding in 1932, it has always maintained a commitment to learning journalism firsthand. The name "Department of Journalism" may be rather old-fashioned now, but from the time it was founded until the present day, the department has never changed its name.

Also unchanged since the department's founding is its emphasis on practice as well as theory. It has introduced bold educational innovations to meet the needs of the times, most notably with its pioneering installation of a studio for producing television programs in 1966. This academic year we launched two new courses, digital journalism and digital archiving, to enable students to experience the reality of working in journalism and use that experience to choose the jobs and workplaces that suit them best. We also integrated the internship program that we have been developing for many years into the curriculum.

Japan's media are at a major turning point given the general trend toward digitization and other developments. Nonetheless, I believe that graduates of this department who have mastered the basics of journalism will continue to play active roles in a wide variety of fields.

Yoshihiro Oto, Professor, Department of Journalism, Faculty of Humanities
Yoshihiro Oto
Professor, Department of Journalism, Faculty of Humanities

Yoshihiro Oto was born in Sapporo, Hokkaido in 1961. After completing his doctorate at one of Sophia University's graduate schools, from 1990 he was employed at a research institute of the National Association of Commercial Broadcasters (present Japan Commercial Broadcasters Association). After working as an associate professor at Sophia University and as a visiting scholar at Columbia University, among other roles, he took up his present position in 2007. He specializes in media theory and information society theory and his books include Hoso medhia no gendaiteki tenkai (Modern Development of Broadcasting Media) (New Media, Inc.). He also worked as a visiting researcher at the General Affairs Research Bureau of the House of Representatives.

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