The horrific Kyoto Animation Co. arson attack that killed 36 people and injured 33 others in July could very well be remembered as a pivotal moment in the Japanese media’s coverage of crime victims.
Domestic media refrained from excessively covering the relatives of those hurt or killed at the studio in Kyoto’s Fushimi Ward, but also explained their rationale for disclosing the victims’ names over their families’ objections.
Reporters on the scene agonized over how to cover the tragedy professionally while taking into account the feelings of the next of kin, who were in the midst of processing their grief.
Families in the meantime were afraid the reputations of their loved ones would be tarnished on social media once their names were released.
Ultimately, many news organizations felt that attaching names and faces to the tragedy, instead of just figures, would humanize it.
Media customs regarding disclosure differ from country to country and by organization.
In the United States and Britain, for example, disclosure of accident or crime victims’ names is widely practiced, with the public’s right to know taking precedence. Germany and South Korea, on the other hand, withhold victims’ names in principle to prioritize privacy.
Reporters covering the arson attack in Kyoto were bewildered because the reporting behavior of each news organization was exposed in detail on social media, often resulting in public criticism of their coverage.
The attack on Kyoto Animation, abbreviated KyoAni, took place on July 18. But the victims’ names were released in stages, starting with 10 on Aug. 2, then 25 on Aug. 27. The 36th victim died in early October.
Why did it take so long?
The Kyoto Prefectural Police made contact with the next to kin for consent to release the victims’ names and to ask whether anyone in the family would agree to a media interview. The National Police Agency also instructed the Kyoto police to get consent before releasing any names. Of the 36 victims’ families, 22 declined.
According to a petition claiming a violation of human rights brought to the Kyoto Bar Association in early December, even though the Kyoto police told news outlets that family members had refused to release victims’ names, they did so anyway.
Some argue that disclosure is vital in reporting major criminal cases or accidents accurately and providing valuable lessons for society.
Both national dailies and local papers ran reports on the KyoAni attack using the names released by the police. At the same time, they cooperated to avoid engaging in excessive coverage.
For example, representatives from each organization visited the families and others concerned instead of mobbing them with the usual media scrum and immediately left when their requests were rejected. They also shared information amongst themselves on the families’ reactions.
The Asahi Shimbun and many other newspapers also explained their reasons for naming the victims.
In its coverage, the Mainichi Shimbun decided to offer a detailed explanation of why it chose to name the victims, while paying due consideration to the families and avoiding media scrums.
On the day after the names of 25 victims were announced, the Mainichi ran an article on its stance on releasing the names and included past cases where it chose to withhold names.
“Speaking from my experience of being a reporter covering incidents and accidents, I think a name offers ‘proof of living,'” said freelance journalist Akihiro Otani in the Mainichi’s Sept. 16 edition.
“There were people who came to the scene of the incident, saying ‘Because I knew the names I felt the need to come to offer my prayers.’ … Reporting names in the media is a manifestation of the resolve not to allow a victim’s life to fade away with time.”
The Kyoto Shimbun released a story on distressed KyoAni reporters under the headline “Torn over the risks of hurting bereaved families” in its Aug. 18 edition. On Aug. 28, the daily also reported on an in-house debate it held on whether anonymous coverage truly conveys the families’ grief to readers.
While the Kyoto daily decided to post photos after receiving consent in principle, the reporters reached an agreement, endorsed by senior editors, not to cover the wakes and funerals, according to Shigetaka Meguro, a managing director in the general news section.
Just rattling off such reasons as the “right to know,” “matter of record” and public disclosure being “common sense abroad” may not hold much sway with grief-stricken families. Experts argue that more convincing justification is needed.
At a third-party meeting organized by Kyodo News in November, journalist Yasushi Kamada made the point that “The rationale of releasing names because there is a ‘right to know’ is not a persuasive argument for the average person.”
Masahiro Sogabe, a professor of information law at Kyoto University’s graduate school, posed the question, “Are victims’ names for public purview? I think the people involved and their families’ intentions should also be respected.”
In the United States, the names of the deceased are usually disclosed after their next of kin are notified but are sometimes withheld in sex-related crimes or cases involving minors.
In Britain, police have worked out a guideline with media outlets stipulating that victims names are to be disclosed once their families have been notified. If the victim is alive, they need to get consent from the victim or the next of kin.
In Germany, victims’ names are usually withheld except in the case of public figures. In principle, protection of privacy also applies to perpetrators. But their given names, along with the first letter of their surnames, appear in media reports. Full names and photos of the accused, however, can be revealed at each news organization’s discretion in high-profile cases.
Korean media do not report names except in cases involving celebrities because the police refuse to release them under a law protecting crime victims. Perpetrators’ names are also withheld, though exceptions are sometimes made for particularly heinous crimes.
The detailed explanation provided by newspapers as well as media reports on how this issue has sparked internal debate at news outlets in the wake of the KyoAni attack suggest a new direction for media coverage in Japan.