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Sunday, Dec. 9, 2007

MEDIA MIX

Media shows little respect to family of young murder victims


On Nov. 27, 11 days after 58-year-old Keiko Miura and her two preschool grandchildren went missing from Miura's home in Kagawa Prefecture, and the same day Miura's brother-in-law Masanori Kawasaki was arrested for their murder, the online Ohmy News service compared the coverage of the incident to that of Suzuka Hatakeyama, the woman from Akita Prefecture who is now on trial for the murders of a 7-year-old neighbor and her own 9-year-old daughter in 2006.

In both cases, several dozen news people camped outside the homes of the only principals involved who would talk to them. In Akita it was Hatakeyama herself, and in Kagawa it was 43-year-old Kiyoshi Yamashita, the son-in-law of Miura and father of the two missing girls.

It's unusual for relatives of crime victims to talk to the press directly, but Yamashita was not only willing to be interviewed, he also allowed his face to be filmed. The media took full advantage of the opportunity.

Ohmy News relates how reporters then started interviewing neighbors, not so much about the disappearance and the bloodstains found in Miura's house, but about Yamashita himself. They said the family didn't socialize or participate in community activities. One neighbor thought she once heard Miura and Yamashita quarreling loudly.

As the blanket coverage continued with no announcement from the police about progress in the investigation, various media reported that Yamashita was unemployed and that Miura, who had two jobs, was supporting his family. Then they started saying that Miura was in debt and had borrowed money from her sister, who died last April.

No one openly speculated that Yamashita was involved in the disappearance, but it seemed obvious to many people who watched and read about the case that this is exactly what the media was conveying. According to Ohmy News, the impression was intensified by Yamashita's appearance, which is rough, as well as by his speaking manner, which sounded like "the boxing Kameda brothers," who are known for their crude diction.

At one point, police inexplicably gave Yamashita a ride into town and TV reporters started saying that the father had been "picked up for questioning," which wasn't true at all.

Some in the media went too far. Opinionated emcee Monta Mino wondered out loud on his TBS morning show "why the family didn't call the police right away" when they realized Miura and the two little girls were missing. "It's very strange," he added, barely hiding his suspicion. A more obvious indictment was made by 20-year-old actress Natsuko Hoshino on her blog, where she directly named Yamashita as the likely culprit. Hoshino's talent agency immediately deleted the reference and suspended her for a full year.

Ohmy reporter Tsuyoki Kitazawa expressed alarm at the way the media was covering the case, though his reasoning inadvertently reinforced the general condescension that fed the suspicions. "He had no motive," Kitazawa wrote, to kill his own "adorable" daughters or Miura, who, after all, was the only source of income for his family. Three days later, after Masanori Kawasaki, Miura's brother-in-law, was arrested for the killing, a different Ohmy News reporter said his confession "belied all the media's assumptions."

Though Yamashita may have been naive about allowing the press such steady access to his thoughts and person, he understood how they were subtly setting him up. "I don't really care if people think I did it," he said just prior to the arrest. "For TV, it may be more interesting to say that a parent killed his children. When they find out it's not me, will the media apologize? I'm sure they won't. They'll find something else to laugh about."

But since no reporters actually stated that Yamashita was a suspect, they had nothing to apologize for. In fact, the coverage continued in the same patronizing vein, only instead of giving the impression that Yamashita was involved in the confirmed deaths — Kawasaki had led police to where the three bodies were buried — they elaborated on "money trouble" by painting a picture of an extended family twisted by ignorance and indolence.

Even the usually cynical Shukan Bunshun expressed shock at the media's "lack of sympathy" toward the family in the wake of the tragedy. At the press conference following the discovery of the bodies, Yamashita was bombarded with questions such as "Did you know Keiko had money problems?" and "Why did she have to work 13 hours a day?" The weekly magazine Aera, whose target readership is educated, affluent career types, dubbed the case an "income-gap murder" (kakusa satsujin), describing it as if it were the natural result of some social scourge that produced poor, dumb hicks with no moral compass.

Intrafamily homicides are not limited to low-income households. In fact, many of the more famous recent examples have involved middle class and well-to-do families, and based on what little information has trickled out so far, Kawasaki's motive for allegedly killing his sister-in-law was more personal than financial. Yamashita, perhaps in vain, is now asking the media to stop obsessing over "money troubles" and "tell the truth," but such prejudices, not to mention the impulse for self-justification, are difficult to dislodge. Shukan Gendai's teaser headline promised an explanation of how "TV Turned a 43-year-old Father Into a Criminal," but the content of the attached article was just more of the same speculation about the family's financial woes.

Having extracted tabloid gold from the Suzuka Hatakeyama case, the media thought they had struck a similar mother lode in Kagawa. Their main suspect turned out to be innocent, but that didn't mean they had to abandon the mine. They had already invested too much in it.



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