National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Winning the media battle against COVID-19

by Philip Brasor

Contributing writer

On March 12, the Sankei Shimbun ran an editorial urging the media to refrain from criticizing the government for its handling of the coronavirus emergency. The Sankei Shimbun was elaborating on a complaint made by former TV announcer Yoshiko Sakurai that the press was not properly instilling in the public a sense of solidarity in overcoming the crisis. Finding fault with authorities is “acceptable” when things are normal, said the newspaper, but during an emergency focusing on “Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe’s political beliefs and trivializ(ing) his response to the national crisis” is not.

The Sankei Shimbun may be oversimplifying the reaction of outlets such as the Asahi Shimbun and the Mainichi Shimbun to the Abe administration’s handling of the matter. Certainly, there is a political element in those newspapers’ analysis of the government response, but they also ponder whether those decisions are effective in their coverage. This contrast has led to confusion over how the media should approach the situation, especially in the wake of the passage of a revised law to provide the prime minister with powers to declare a state of emergency and, as a result, potentially limit press freedoms.

On March 11, columnist Osamu Aoki wrote in the Osaka edition of the Mainichi Shimbun about his recent appearance on TV Asahi’s “Shinichi Hatori’s Morning Show.” He and others discussed the shortage of face masks for medical institutions. One “expert” said hospitals that specialized in respiratory problems should be prioritized for receiving masks.

The next morning, the health ministry tweeted a criticism of the program by name. The government had indeed made sure that institutions designated for fighting infectious diseases received priority for masks. But rather than accepting the criticism at face value, which is what usually happens with news-related information programming, “Shinichi Hatori’s Morning Show” pushed back, claiming that institutions specializing in infectious diseases had told them that they had not received masks from the government. Nor had they received notification that they would eventually be sent any.

Later, the Cabinet Office’s task force for infectious diseases tweeted that the claims made on “Shinichi Hatori’s Morning Show” about the government stance on revising the influenza law were wrong. Then, the publicity arm of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party joined in and tweeted a similar sentiment, again citing the program by name.

On March 7, Aoki says, the Mainichi Shimbun looked into the tweets and reported that the Prime Minister’s Office had instructed relevant bureaucrats to verbally object to specific news coverage that was “different from the truth.” However, it was TV Asahi’s view, based on its own research, that it was the government’s version of events that was different from the truth. Aoki blasted the exchange as a waste of time, and said the health ministry should devote more effort to boosting tests for the virus and improving crisis management.

According to online magazine Litera, the health ministry and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s publicity department also complained about a segment on TBS’s “N Suta” program on March 4, which featured an expert who commented that the coronavirus is a new type of virus that is easier to contract than seasonal flu. The health ministry tweeted that this is not the case, citing the World Health Organization, which said that the infectiousness of the coronavirus was “not that high” compared to seasonal flu. Litera points out that the expert, professor Harue Okada, who has been appearing on almost every news show for the past several weeks, was talking about infectiousness with regard to people’s immune systems. The LDP may be scapegoating Okada because she has been saying the government’s response has been too little, too late, and Litera says something similar is happening in the Diet. LDP lawmaker Kimi Onoda complained of the media’s coverage of toilet paper shortages and the misleading number of those infected. Litera thinks the LDP is spending an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to block criticism.

If that’s the case, it seems to be working. Litera mentions a BuzzFeed Japan reporter who tweeted that it was right for the health ministry to put pressure on the media by naming those who convey content that will cause anxiety. The Huffington Post reported that the health ministry objected to a story on CNN featuring Hokkaido University professor Hiroshi Nishiura, since CNN interpreted Nishiura’s findings as meaning that the real number of infected people in Japan was probably 10 times higher than the official number. Nishiura, who has worked with the ministry on making statistical models, subsequently released a statement through the ministry saying, essentially, that CNN was wrong. On at least one occasion, the ministry admitted it had spoken too soon, giving some credence to the notion that this media policy is preemptive rather than corrective.

These developments were discussed by journalist Koichi Yasuda and activist Yasumichi Noma on their web talk show “No Hate TV” on March 13. Noma compared the monitoring campaign to the activities of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984.” The Ministry of Truth is the government’s propaganda generator, rewriting history and deciding what is fact in order to promote its interests. Noma thinks the current administration will mainly be remembered for the way it has manipulated narratives by changing or destroying documents or even not keeping records at all. The tweets from the health ministry, the LDP and the Cabinet Office targeting “Shinichi Hatori’s Morning Show” demonstrated a new front in this effort because they were well-coordinated. Noma even suspects they may have been written by the same person.

Yasuda’s concern is that outlets such as BuzzFeed are giving in to the pressure and not asking questions or digging for information. If they support the government line because they think they’re supposed to, then they are forfeiting their responsibility as journalists. To paraphrase a famous quote that may or may not have been uttered by English journalist George Orwell himself, the role of a reporter is to speak truth to power. Everything else is public relations.

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