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The press has taken quite a beating over its coverage of the murders at Ikeda Elementary School. Even before the funerals, letters to the editor columns were filled with missives from enraged readers lam basting the media’s lack of either common decency or common sense. Most complaints concerned interviews with children as they were leaving the school after the murders. “As a parent, I was speechless,” one correspondent wrote to the Asahi Shimbun, “I never imagined the press could be so cruel.”

The Asahi Shinbun took the accusations seriously enough to run a series of articles during the week of July 23 explaining in detail how its own reporters covered the incident. The paper made no excuses, seeking instead to give an idea of the issues confronting members of the press in such circumstances.

The most important consideration for a reporter is how to balance the public’s need to know with the rights and feelings of the people involved. On the morning of June 8, police-beat reporters were alerted that something had happened at the elementary school but were not given any details. When they arrived on site, they were still not aware that a man had stabbed many students.

One Asahi photographer said that no police line had yet been set up. He entered the school grounds at about the same time that frantic mothers were arriving. He saw a group of children crying and then a teacher, noticing the photographer’s press armband, yelled at him to get out. He saw a large pool of blood, took a picture of it, and left.

For newspaper reporters the situation was doubly uncomfortable, because although it was only a little past 11 they needed information for the evening editions. By this time, journalists understood that something terrible had happened, but without knowing just what that something was they didn’t have any way of judging how far they could go.

Parents and children started leaving the grounds. Most of them simply ran past the reporters, but one little girl and her mother stopped, and about 20 journalists and TV cameramen quickly surrounded them. This is the incident that most of the enraged viewers and readers were upset about. The girl’s cool, blunt manner unsettled people: a man came in and stabbed some students in the stomach; they fell and didn’t move. One Asahi reporter said he was so stunned that he instinctively moved away. Other reporters pulled back, too, but once they did, a different group of reporters surrounded her and went through the whole thing again.

The press’s actions become more understandable. The scene at the school was surely chaotic: parents, children, school employees, police, the media, all running around with no clear idea of what had happened. Children (but not many) were questioned because no one except the children knew what had happened. At this point the media can’t justly be accused of heartlessness, because they didn’t know what the true situation was.

What the Asahi articles don’t satisfactorily explain, however, is the press’s behavior once the full impact of the tragedy had sunk in. In one instalment, individual reporters wrote of how difficult it was to gather anecdotes and photos of the dead children. One even mentions the father of a victim who agreed to talk about his daughter if the reporter promised “not to write a sentimental article.” But by then it was already too late, because how else could you describe a piece that explains the hopes and dreams of the victim?

In other media, as well, reporters insisted that they wanted to convey the brutality of the murders, or that they sought to “honor” the victims by telling their stories. Several have even said they wanted to make sure such a tragedy “never happened again,” a reason that is altogether devoid of logic, since we’re talking about a lone killer who apparently felt no malice toward his victims. Similarly, when one Asahi reporter contacted the four ex-wives of the suspect, the reason he gave was a desire to “find out what kind of personality he had so that we can help prevent similar incidents.”

The impression one gets is not that reporters were cruel or cynical. If anything, they were more than sympathetic toward the victims. The reason the public was outraged is not because the press gathered this information, but because of the way they presented it. How much, exactly, did the public “need” to know about the Ikeda murders? Do funerals qualify as “news?” One Asahi editor said he felt an obligation to show the “depth” of the tragedy. Eight young children were stabbed to death. That’s deep enough for me.

The criticism, however, seems to have made the media gun-shy, at least for the time being. Two weeks ago, a 12-year-old girl was found dead and handcuffed by the side of an expressway in Hyogo Prefecture, apparently murdered. The media did its usual victim coverage, but what they dug up suggested instead that the girl might have been at best a problem child, and at worst a prostitute.

Most of the “wide shows” suddenly stopped covering the case after a security video was aired showing the girl getting into an elevator with an older man. The weeklies have continued their coverage, and while Shukan Bunshun advertised its latest article about the girl as something “that can’t be written,” of course they did. Anchorpersons often give comments at the end of a story, but prompted about the Hyogo case last week on Fuji TV’s “Super News,” Yuko Ando was clearly hesitant. “It’s a complicated story,” she said. It always is.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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