Government decisions based on public opinion shaped by media
Tokyo, 24th October 2023 – Published as an article in the Japanese newspaper Sekai Nippo. Republished with permission. Translated from Japanese. Original article
Unconvincing and hypocritical newspaper conference resolution. Doubtful fair reporting in newspapers
By Kiyoji Masu
Dangers of spreading disinformation
Last week was Newspaper Week. The motto was “Know the present, learn from the past, and read for tomorrow.” At the 76th Newspaper Convention held in Karuizawa, Nagano prefecture, it was mentioned that the appearance of artificial intelligence (AI) will facilitate the spread of false information and risk undermining the integrity of the discursive space. The following convention resolution was adopted,
“We must continue to deliver accurate reporting and fair commentary to people, protect and nurture a healthy discursive space. In this era of a turbulent information environment, we pledge to contribute to the development of democracy.” (Yomiuri Shimbun 19th October)
It sounds very superficial, like a textbook resolution. Is it only AI that is responsible for the spread of disinformation? Are there accurate reporting and fair commentaries in newspapers? Are we not undermining the health of the discursive space? Such questions pop up.
In the case of the Johnny’s scandal [big sexual abuse / pedophile scandal in the J-pop agency Johnny & Associates Inc., with founder Johnny Kitagawa (1931-2019) as main perpetrator], the government decided on the “freedom not to report” (Japanese: “danmari” – silence, refusing explanation) in order to protect the interests of affiliated TV stations and advertising.
With this in mind, when it came to the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (hereafter referred to as the “religious organisation”), they launched a massive torrential campaign against it. On the other hand, the religious organisation has continued to adhere to its “freedom not to report.” Such convenient pragmatism is quite noticeable.
Announcement coverage from start to finish
Left-wing newspapers have argued that if they continue to report announcements made by governments and other administrative bodies, they will not function as a check on power. There is some truth to that, but it is also too arbitrary.
Earlier, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) submitted a request to the Tokyo District Court for an order to dissolve the religious organisation (reported 14th Oct. in various newspapers). But the press coverage of this was limited to reporting the announcement and did not examine the content of the request at all.
According to the published reports, “There were 32 judgments that deemed the religious organisation liable for damages. Solicitation of donations and the sale of goods made by believers to 169 victims were found to be unlawful (total compensation amount of about 2.2 billion yen)” and “There were approximately 1,550 people included in the reconciliations and settlements, and the total amount of settlement payments is about 20.4 billion yen” (Asahi Shimbun 13th October).
However, serious doubts arise if this announcement is viewed from a different angle. Seishiro Sugihara, former professor at Musashino Women’s University, pointed out in an article published in the 14th October issue of this newspaper,
“A large part of the compensation amount claimed by the Ministry of Education has already been determined in court as compensation paid by the religious organization, or as amounts (and number of people) settled through reconciliation or settlements.”
“The amount reported by individuals who file new claims does not directly become the total compensation amount. It only becomes part of the compensation when there is a legitimate reason to seek a refund, and yet the religious organization refuses to pay. The Ministry of Education’s figures are outrageously exaggerated and serve as a form of manipulation.”
This view cannot be known if only an announcement is being reported. At the very least, in terms of fair reporting, the claims of the religious organisation should have been published. But the press conference held by the religious organisation was only covered in a short report in the Asahi Shimbun and the Mainichi Shimbun 17th October with a two-column headline on the third page of the “society section”. The third page is at worst a news dump and is often used as an excuse to say, “We reported it.” In other words, it is a form of “freedom not to report”.
A nearly dead code of ethics
In the first place, there are many doubts about fair reporting in the newspapers. In the past, the chief editors of Ryukyu Shimpo and Okinawa Times, both members of the Japan Newspaper Publishers Association, appeared on the front page of the Sunday edition of the Japanese Communist Party‘s official newspaper, Shimbun Akahata, and declared a “joint struggle” with the party over the relocation of the US Futenma Air Base to Henoko, Nago City (20th August 2017).
In this situation, those are no longer newspapers of impartiality. Reports on the religious organisation overlap with this political struggle. This is because the reports are all about announcements made by National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales (Zenkoku Benren), which is led by leftwing lawyers affiliated with the Communist Party and those who support extremist groups.
In this light, the two statements in the Newspaper Code of Ethics: “The duty of a reporter is to pursue the truth” and “reporting must be accurate and fair” are almost dead words. Reporting must not be “influenced by the position and beliefs of the individual journalist”, and “commentaries must not be swayed by the world”. Instead, reporting is now swayed by the world (public opinion) the reporters themselves have created.
Claiming that the spread of misinformation is exacerbated by AI without any self-reflection lacks credibility. I want to express my frustration that this year’s Newspaper Week has been particularly hypocritical.
Featured image above: Cartoon titled Public Opinion, 22nd April 1874. Photo: Cornell University Library / Wikimedia Commons. Public domain image. Cropped
“Media-Created Public Opinion Is Boss” – text: Kiyoji Masu. Published 28th Oct. 2023 at 1.33 pm. Updated 4.27 pm.
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