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Japanese media face hostility in disaster coverage on social media

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

Typhoon Jebi caused all sorts of damage when the storm — the most powerful in 25 years to hit the country — tore through western Japan earlier this month.

The typhoon wreaked havoc wherever it went, and even damaging the roof of Kyoto Station, sending shards of glass raining down on people below.

Many on Twitter expressed shock at the footage. However, among the responses were messages from media organizations. Japanese TV programs (and some international journalists) reached out to the user who uploaded the video, @CRAZY904kaz, asking to use the footage on television or get in touch via direct message. The response from other netizens ranged from condemnation of their desire for sensational imagery over people’s safety, amusing images and simple utterances of “Dame” (“Stop”).

This reaction played out on all kinds of social media posts during Typhoon Jebi, and it happened again following the 6.7 magnitude earthquake in Hokkaido. It’s been a recurring occurrence in a year where the biggest stories in Japan have involved extreme weather, and it happens any time people post photos or videos from where a major story unfolds. It captures people creating memes based on the news, but it also reflects how a large number of Japanese netizens distrust traditional media.

As social media sites such as Twitter have become the go-to destination for news in the digital age, they have also become destinations for journalists and media companies looking for sources. It’s also common in the United States, and can be a bit more macabre — a prominent example coming when media members tried to get information from students stuck at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida during the shooting in February.

Embedding tweets or other content such as photos and videos into an online article is also slippery territory, but in Japan it generally doesn’t receive much criticism from netizens when, say, Buzzfeed (or, heck, The Japan Times) posts stories built around social media posts. When traditional media come in, however, the situation changes.

Let’s focus on the recent typhoon again, as it generated the most interaction online. Whenever someone posted a viral video — of, say, scaffolding falling off a building — a TV channel would wade in to try to connect with the user. Then other Twitter users would swoop in to lecture the station, telling the network to “stop” its approach or share a meme. As many on message boards pointed out in threads focused on the reaction, it doesn’t appear to matter if the original poster agreed with the request, third parties would just jump in and speak for them.

At their most altruistic, users urged people — including reporters — not to go out in dangerous conditions, even if they did so in somewhat condescending ways. Or they shared a chart that apparently shows how much one should be paid for content that appears in media. Others highlighted the myriad rules that TV stations follow.

Watching dozens of users make fun of whomever had to manage the news program’s Twitter account for the day feels like the sort of irreverent trolling that dominates many corners of social media. Yet it also leads to plenty of other griping about the media, ranging from people criticizing them for flying helicopters over areas in Hokkaido that had been hit by landslides to getting angry at the people and institutions the media tends to criticize in these situations. And then there’s images of Osaka Station being empty — save for camera people.

It was a reminder of how many netizens approach the Japanese media with hostility, dubbing them “masu gomi” (a slang phrase that means “trash”). That term has been around long before the web became central to discourse, but it has since taken off digitally. Anytime a natural disaster happens, examples of the media acting badly appear, whether it’s a camera crew being shooed away from a school following this year’s Osaka earthquake to news reports happening on top of rubble in Fukushima Prefecture.

The actions can turn political pretty quickly — masu gomi was basically “fake news” before U.S. President Donald Trump even opened his Twitter account — but it also tends to be deployed by both sides of the spectrum.

Whether motivated by ideology or good old-fashioned trolling, expect to see this interaction between media and netizens play out again and again for the foreseeable future. However, if the whole thing makes you roll your eyes, you aren’t alone. Plenty of online observers see this back-and-forth and just find it annoying. They just want the news.