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Friday, Sept. 3, 2010

THE TROUBLE AT TOYOTA

Reportage seems source-biased


By TAKAHIRO FUKADA and NATSUKO FUKUE
Staff writers

U.S. and Japanese media gave widespread but contrasting coverage of the sudden-acceleration accidents involving Toyota Motor Co. vehicles, mainly in North America, with accounts by victims and allegations of safety flaws getting greater play on the other side of the Pacific compared with a muted approach here.

News photo
Wall to wall: U.S. media reports on Feb. 25 show Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda's appearance before a U.S. House of Representatives committee. KYODO PHOTO

U.S. reports at times cast the strong impression that Toyota design flaws were behind many of the accidents, although recent preliminary findings by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration pointed to the possibility that driver error was the cause of most of the reported deadly accidents so far investigated.

Japanese coverage of the accidents, most of which occurred in the U.S., appeared more subdued, or in some cases intimated political motives behind some of the American coverage, even alleging "Toyota bashing" by the U.S. media and Congress.

"You can't deny the fact that the U.S. media, which is (very) good at investigative reporting, tended to sentimentally defend the U.S. cars and bash Toyota," said Takao Sumii, an international media analyst and media and culture studies professor of Kyoto Notre Dame University.

Sumii noted U.S. media reports dealt a devastating blow to Toyota's reputation in the country and it will take "considerable time" before it can regain consumer trust in the quality of its cars.

Some U.S. reports pondered whether there was a direct relation between accident fatalities and suspected defects in Toyota cars.

"Toyota 'Unintended Acceleration' Has Killed 89" led an AP article posted in May by CBS News on the major American broadcaster's website.

The headline for the same AP article carried on The New York Times site read: "Sudden Acceleration Death Toll Linked to Toyota Rises."

U.S. media also focused on relatives of accident fatalities who emotionally denounced Toyota in public, including people testifying at a Senate hearing.

The Japanese media meanwhile gave much less coverage to accidents that took place in the U.S. and indicated that no remarkable accidents involving Toyota cars occurred in this country.

Japanese media rather tended to claim U.S. media and politicians were "Toyota-bashing."

A Feb. 2 report by the conservative Sankei Shimbun read: "Aiming at reviving the U.S. auto industry, it seems (the) Obama administration and Congress are trying to solve problems with an attitude that can be called 'Toyota bashing.' "

Nikkei reported that foreign companies can easily be targeted by the U.S. government and Congress.

"Since the Obama administration, which is suffering from falling approval rates (in media polls), advocates doubling exports and reviving (U.S.) manufacturers, foreign companies can easily be targeted," a Feb. 6 Nikkei report said.

Amid the stagnant employment situation and with this fall's midterm elections approaching, the U.S. government and Congress accelerated efforts to find targets to divert the attention of dissatisfied voters, the report added.

On Feb. 2, the Canadian newspaper Financial Post published on its website an article defending Toyota as the "victim of much more than another typical out-of-control All-American media frenzy" and "great American nationalist assault on a foreign corporation."

Kyodo News immediately carried a report on the article, which was run by the Tokyo Shimbun on Feb. 5 and later mentioned by Japanese weekly magazines.

Japanese media were apparently unhappy about a short piece on an alleged sudden acceleration aired by ABC News on Feb. 22.

The broadcaster added a 2-second shot of a tachometer in a parked car, but it gave the impression that the reporter was driving.

While an AP story about ABC News on March 11 said "ABC's insertion of wrong video in Toyota story causes problems" in its subhead, the headline for a Yomiuri Shimbun article read: "ABC manipulates video footage" — more blunt wording that echoed the general view of Japanese readers.



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