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Publishing Companies and TV stations: The Structure of Problematic News Reporting

Shiro Segawa
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics and Graduate School of Political Science, Waseda University

Many media scandals have happened

Affairs which may erode trust in the mass media have recently happened one after another. They were not management or sales scandals, but ones casting a doubt on the manner of gathering and reporting news, which are the core operation of the mass media. Many of them were caused by publishing companies and TV stations.

The following attempts to explore characteristics and a background of such problematic news reporting.

In 2009, two problems have been revealed. One was that a TV program by Nippon Television (NTV) titled "Shinso Hodo Bankisha!" wrongly reported a secret fund of a prefectural office based on a false statement provided from outside. The other was that a person professing that he shot and killed newspaper reporters at Asahi Shimbun newspaper Hanshin bureau wrote a false memoir on a weekly magazine Shukan Shincho with his real name shown on it.

In addition, the Nara District Court delivered judgment on a doctor who conducted a legal psychiatric test for a boy who set fire to his own house to kill his family. The doctor leaked the boy's deposition to a freelance journalist who was writing a book about the boy's case. Newspapers and TV severely criticized the journalist and Kodansha, the publisher of the book, for failing to conceal the information source, which could easily be identified based on expressions in the book.

False reporting was foreboded

I usually seldom buy Shukan Shincho. However, I bought and read the memoir on its February 4th 2009 issue as soon as it was on sale.

This was not because I was shocked by a "great scoop" looking at its headline saying "Confession with my real name: I attacked Asahi Shimbun newspaper Hanshin bureau!" Rather, I felt as if it was "fictional" and was aware of necessity to obtain the article for future examination as a scholar engaging in study and education in journalism at a university.

I believe that many journalists also felt something was wrong upon looking at the article's too neatly ordered headline.

This foreboding came true. Shinchosha, the publisher of the magazine, admitted the memoir to be wrong and printed an article titled "How was Shukan Shincho deceived by a fake shooter?" in the names of the chief editor and the reporter group on the April 23rd issue of Shukan Shincho.

"Truth" totally relying on "confession" helps propaganda

Reading this article makes it clear that a letter from the fake shooter cued the process of creating the memoir; the editorial staff looked for evidence supporting his statement in vain; and, in spite of it, they concluded that the statement was "equivalent to the truth" relying on his plausible behavior of revealing his real name. They also did not clear up all problems found in his statement.

This amounts to a virtual declaration that Shukan Shincho would be easily deceived by a skillful swindler whenever he approaches it.

In the case of NTV's "Bankisha," the start was also information provided by a person who wrongly accused the prefectural office and they did not adequately corroborate it. Totally relying on voluntary "confession," this case has the identical structure to the case of Shukan Shucho. With the appearance of magazine journalism or TV journalism, they only play a role of a loudspeaker for propaganda discharging provided information without sufficiently verifying it.

The cases of Shukan Shuncho and NTV can be formally regarded as "false investigative reporting."

On the other hand, journalists who won the Waseda Journalism Award in Memory of Ishibashi Tanzan for their good investigative reporting explain their own way of news gathering as follows:

"I piled up facts one by one modestly, quickly and steadily." "I never write ambiguous information. This is an iron law." ("Behind the Investigative Reporting on [Chosa Hodo no Uragawa]," Takashi Kajiyama, Asahi Shimbun)

"In a sense, investigative reporting takes long time and requires a large amount of manpower. In addition, our broadcasting cannot afford any mistake." "Our mistake or inadequate fact gathering may socially kill the subject of the news." "Therefore, we must thoroughly gather all facts." ("Investigative Reporting by TV [TV ni yoru Chosa Hodo]," Hisami Higashida, Mainichi Broadcasting System)

Their words indicate their modest attitude of approaching the truth by exhausting every possible means. Fundamental literature in journalism The Elements of Journalism (Bill Kovach et al., Japanese translation published by Nihon Keizai Hyouronsha, 2002) cites a principle that "journalism's first obligation is to the truth" on the top of the list of nine principles.

Journalists keeping the obligation to the truth in mind would not hastily come to a conclusion about a fact. Journalism is not an activity of making a conclusion, but an endeavor of verifying facts.

Is a "ghost-written memoir" journalism?

Shinchosha incomprehensibly responded to its problematic reporting mentioned above. The article on the April 23rd issue examining the matter was not written by a third party but by the chief editor and his team responsible for it. It is reported that the chief editor was later promoted to an officer in charge of the magazine without incurring any punishment. Kansai Telecasting Corporation set up a third-party committee consisting of outside specialists to investigate fabricated experiments in "Aru-Aru Daijiten II," a TV program giving scientific advice on daily life; so did Kodansha for the problem of the book on the Nara arson-homicide case. However, it is reported that Shinchosha does not have intention to do so.

Why is Shinchosha not going to clarify the responsibility?

I suppose that one of its reasons is the style of "memoir." In fact, the memoir was not written by the fake shooter himself but by an editor on behalf of him. However, the fake shooter is responsible for it because it is his memoir. The editors of Shukan Shincho feel that they were deceived by him into printing the wrong memoir. I think that the memoir style constitutes propaganda which only presents what is in favor of him and deviate from the methodology of journalism, which has obligation to the truth.

On the other hand, the ghost-written memoir also has an aspect of providing information on the fake shooter. It was an editor who wrote the memoir based on provided information. The editorial staff of Shukan Shincho explained that they paid him 800 thousand yen in total and that the money was not a reward for the provision of information but a fee for the article. Though it is definitely difficult to differentiate between them, I think that this 800 thousand yen should be regarded as a reward for the provision of information because he told his experience to the editor to write the memoir and his actual role was an information provider.

Considering so might imply why the fake shooter told the editor a lie.

Widening gap between the mass media and journalism

Prevailing "conclusion-making journalism," which lost a modest attitude toward the truth and ignores thorough verification, have considerably hurt trust in news reported by publishing companies and TV stations. How did this structure emerge?

I think that this proves rapidly widening gap between the mass media and journalism amid today's situation surrounding the media.

As Nyozekan Hasegawa, Jun Tosaka, and other commentators and philosophers said about newspapers long ago, media companies have been producing newspapers, magazines and TV programs as "commodities" in the capitalist society. Once having been at the height of its glory, today's media companies - the mass media - are suffering a sharp decline in advertising revenue due to the economic turmoil in 2008 and the advent of the Internet, which is sometimes compared to "the black boats" which came from the United States in the nineteenth century to persuade Japan to abandon its isolationist policy and open to the world. In the struggle for survival in a shrinking market, every mass media company is being forced to produce more stimulative products through a more efficient and streamlined news production process. Apart from each media reporter's intention, the mass media companies are increasingly deviating from the normative journalism which contributes to establishment of a public sphere for citizens.

An underlying and deeply rooted cause of the problematic news reporting is this change of the environment surrounding the media. This is a serious concern not only for magazines and TV but also for newspaper journalism.

Even universities can achieve the true investigative reporting

However, we do not need to have a completely pessimistic view on the future of journalism. In fact, journalism is not monopolized by the media companies.

Waseda University added a journalism course to its Graduate School of Political Science in 2008. This is intended to be a "Graduate School of Journalism" for developing professional journalists.

Its curriculum was designed for learning theoretical as well as practical expertise of gathering and reporting news, where I am teaching a class titled "investigative reporting methodology." Students learn how to gather news without relying on press release or publicity and put it into practice to write articles.

This class has generated a scoop article reporting that seven governmental agencies delayed release of opinions on government policies sent from the public through an opinion collection system for 951 days at the maximum, which is violation of Administrative Procedure Act. This article had a huge impact: Following it, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare admitted its "inappropriateness" in its press release, and Asahi Shimbun newspaper and Kyodo News reported that a graduate student pointed out the Ministry's mistake. This article can be read on a web magazine Spork! edited by graduate students in journalism at Waseda University. I feel proud that it is certainly investigative reporting for citizens though it does not deal with showy topics.

In the U.S., Department of Journalism at Boston University established New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR). Moreover, School of Communication at American University set up a workshop for investigative reporting. I expect that Japanese universities will also play a significant part in investigative reporting and other journalistic activities some day.

Reference URLs

Web magazine "Spork!":

The Journalism School at Waseda University:

The Waseda Journalism Award in Memory of Ishibashi Tanzan:

Shiro Segawa
Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics and Graduate School of Political Science

Prof. Segawa graduated from Department of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo in 1997, majoring history of science and philosophy of science. He served the Mainichi Newspapers as a correspondent in Washington, a manager of the science and environment division, a deputy manager of the editorial board, an editorialist, etc. He won the JCJ Encouragement Award (present JCJ Award) in 1998 as a member of a group who reported matters related to depleted-uranium cannon rounds. Prof. Segawa has been the program manager for Graduate School of Journalism at Waseda University since January 2008. He is also responsible for supervising science news for Tokyo Broadcasting System.
Prof. Segawa's major publications include Note on Health Food [Kenko Shokuhin Noto] (Iwanami Shinsho) and The Scene of Heart Transplants [Shinzo Ishoku no Genba] (Shinchosha). He is also a co-author of Explosion of 3 Billion People in Asia [Ajia 30 Oku-nin no Bakuhatsu] (Mainichi Newspapers), White Paper of People Studying Science [Rikei Hakusho] (Kodansha), How Should Journalism Face Science and Technology? [Jaanarizumu wa Kagaku Gijutsu to Dou Mukiau-ka] (Tokyo Denki University Press), etc.