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Journalist admits self censoring in media.

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Joined: 23 Jan 2004
Posts: 66
Location: Japan

Post Post subject: Journalist admits self censoring in media. Reply with quote

I came accross this article on the Japan Policy Research Institute's website at where, among other things, the subjects of self censorship by journalists, advertising and newspaper revenues come up. It's very interesting and refreshing to see a journalist admitting all this.
Here is an excerpt.

When I started writing here three years ago I was determined never to contribute to the weird Japan syndrome. This country was just as complicated, daft and infuriating as anywhere else; the lives of ordinary people in Bed-town, Saitama were little different, minor cultural issues aside, from those in Bedford, England, and that’s how I would describe it. Three years later I look back over near two hundred articles and find the biggest, most prominent pieces are about cults, gangsters, and suicides. I’ve managed to avoid geishas but that’s more than been made up for with articles about kamikaze pilots, train gropers, Sumo wrestlers, and ultra-rightists. Okay, there’s stuff in there too about teachers, factory workers, and students, some economic analysis, one or two big political stories, but can I say I’ve given a balanced picture of this country? Nope. Japan looks pretty weird.

Even when writing a straightforward piece about a political leadership contest, I can’t claim to be without journalistic sin. Take the defeat two years ago of Yoshio Mori by “maverick” politician Junichiro Koizumi for the presidency of the LDP. One way of writing the story would have been like this:

Koizumi wins political kabuki show

“Bumbling Yoshio Mori has finally been replaced by the more media-friendly Junichiro Koizumi in a contest for leadership of the LDP that nevertheless leaves Japan’s sclerotic political structure intact. Politicians in Japan have, in any case, very little power to influence policy in comparison to the bureaucrats who write it.”

Here’s what I wrote:

Japanese reformer poised to become next premier

“The reformist Japanese politician, Mr. Junichiro Koizumi, won a landslide victory in the contest for the leadership of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party yesterday, and immediately promised a radical overhaul of the country’s stagnant political and economic landscape.”

Some readers might prefer the second version, but which looks more correct now?

What are the reasons for this phenomenon, apart from my own failings? Partly the issue here is that newspapers in particular are driven by the relentless pursuit of the fresh and interesting to hold onto their readerships, encouraging writers to sprinkle their accounts of mundane developments with lively adjectives like “radical” and “reformer.” But increasingly intense competition in most print markets and the post-2001 advertising slump also means less space for analysis and “public-service” style journalism, more for sexier stuff that grabs the reader’s roving eye. Sales of the Independent, for example, which were nearly 420,000 in 1990, have slumped below 220,000 now (with only 143,000 paying full price), and the newspaper has undergone extensive remodeling, downgrading foreign news to just one page and replacing hard news with tabloid-style features. The Irish Times, while managing to hold onto its core middle-class readership, missed bankruptcy by a whisker in 2002 and has since cut back sharply on its foreign news output. Both cases demonstrate very sharply how sensitive newsgathering is to the vagaries of the market and in particular the advertising that keeps everything afloat.

Struggling newspapers at home, staffed by editors who often know little about Japan, mean that the main political and economic stories are distilled to a sort of standard template (“Japan is an economic basket-case,” being a typical example) that often don’t allow for more analysis (Japan’s political economy doesn’t work like the West). It was difficult for me to argue, for instance, during the brief tenure of the unpopular Yoshio Mori, that newspapers should carry some analysis to inform readers that Mori was not a prime minister in the sense that most British or Irish readers might expect, being more of a figurehead for a system of government dominated by turf-conscious civil servants. And few editors cared that Mori’s endless “gaffes” were not the isolated mistakes of a political leader out of his depth, but representative of a large section of views within the party he led.

Freelancers probably unwittingly contribute to this process because they have less authority to insist on a particular version of the story than an established staff correspondent does. A lowly stringer trying sell her story to a busy foreign desk with which she has only the most tentative of connections will often tailor a story to meet the expectations or demands of that newspaper. Sometimes the same stringer will write very different stories on the same topic for different newspapers.
Fri Jan 23, 2004 7:54 am
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Joined: 16 Jan 2004
Posts: 17
Location: Edinburgh

Post Post subject: Reply with quote

An interesting article. The writer seems to have grasped part of the problem but not all of it. For example, he gives an example of the way he could have presented a story (fresh, surprising, truthful) and then what he felt bound to write (dull and formulaic). He then blames this on newspaper's need to appeal to their dwindling readership with snappy stories, but surely his never-written version was a lot more interesting than his supposedly snappy version.

Perhaps someone should send him a copy of Manufacturing Consent.
Fri Jan 23, 2004 10:49 am
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