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Sunday, Dec. 18, 2005

MEDIA MIX

Robotic journalists do their 'job' covering tragic deaths of girls


In a period of less than three weeks, three elementary school-age girls were recently murdered in different areas of Japan. The nature of the crimes guaranteed extensive coverage, but their occurrence in quick succession stretched the resources of the news media beyond its normal capabilities.

Moreover, the incidents occurred at a time when the press is looking at a possible curtailment of its news-gathering options with regard to exactly this kind of crime.

Since last April, when the government passed a basic law to help crime victims, discussions have been continuing with regard to specifics. One recommendation is for police to withhold the names of victims of crimes and serious accidents from the press in light of complaints from victims' families, who say that reporters violate their right to privacy in order to get statements. The Cabinet will supposedly look at the matter this month.

The reaction from the news media has been strong and unanimous. The Japan Newspaper Association has said that such a law would greatly damage the freedom of the press. All the major newspapers and broadcasters insist that it should be left up to them to decide whether or not to use names of victims in news reports. In an editorial published in October, the Mainichi Shimbun admitted that "some media" turned victims' families into "secondary victims" through intrusive coverage, but that hiding the names of victims would, on balance, be a mistake.

By "some media," the Mainichi is obviously referring to tabloid TV and weekly magazines, but in the thick of news-gathering, the mainstream press can be just as inconsiderate. In a Dec. 8 article, the Asahi Shimbun described the media free for all following the Nov. 22 murder of a 7-year-old girl in Hiroshima Prefecture. Within hours, about two dozen reporters had descended on the neighborhood where the body was found and were questioning residents. The local police quickly distributed instructions asking them not to "interfere" with the victim's family, relatives, or neighbors, and not to take pictures of the girl's school.

In cases like these, the local police act as a liaison between victims' families and the media. In the Hiroshima case, representatives of 16 media companies agreed to be "moderate" in their coverage after they received the police instructions. But at the funeral several days later, the father of the girl refused to provide a written statement and a photo to the media, and the police later changed his mind, warning that if he didn't appease the press in some way, "the demand for coverage would just increase."

After the murdered body of a 7-year-old Tochigi Prefecture girl was discovered Dec. 2, the police asked the media to exercise "self-restraint," and at first the press agreed. However, during a meeting of parents at the victim's elementary school, a group of reporters entered the grounds to talk to them. In order to keep the press at bay, the principal had to promise to hold daily news conferences at 5 p.m. in front of the school gate. About 100 reporters and cameramen who covered the funeral kept their distance, albeit with telephoto lenses. One TV reporter described it as "chaos."

All this supposedly because the public has a right to know. But what exactly is it we want to know? And what do we actually get? In the Tochigi case, reporters went to an apple orchard that the little girl had recently visited. Is the orchard owner's sketchy impression of her vital to our understanding of the case? Why do we need to know so much about the victim's background? To increase our sympathy for the family and intensify our rage toward the killer?

Reporters are required by their editors to gain as much information as possible for sensational news stories, and the quest for quantity overpowers any considerations of quality. Air time and column inches must be filled. Brutal murders are considered ratings-boosters and magazine-sellers. As long as the content is related it doesn't have to be relevant.

The media's self-serving mantra about the public's "right to know" masks its laziness. None of their complaints about the recommendation to withhold victims' names hold up under scrutiny. Both the Mainichi and the Asahi ran editorials saying the same thing, that such a law would undermine the media's job of keeping the police in line, because without names the press wouldn't be able to check the veracity of their statements.

But the mainstream press only reports what the police give them anyway through the kisha (press) clubs. Journalists can acquire information from many sources, but the major media rely completely on officials. What newspapers and broadcasters are really worried about -- should the police withhold the names of victims -- is that they will actually have to go out and dig up those names themselves, which means every reporter for himself; in other words, competition.

The real question is: Why do they need those names and what do they do with them? A backlash started last spring when some of the families of people killed in the Amagasaki train accident asked the police not to release the names of their loved ones to the media. It's a common practice for the media to air or print such names, though no one has ever explained why it's necessary. Like reporting those murdered girls' hopes and dreams or their families' pain, it adds nothing to our understanding of the tragedies. It's just more data.

In an ideal media world, reporters would use their conscience and professionalism when deciding whether or not to report certain elements of a story, but mostly they use convenience and unexamined protocol. "Reporting actual names is a principle of journalism," said a media professor in a recent Asahi editorial. That's true if what you are doing is real journalism.

What we get is more like dictation.



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