The government’s COVID-19 subcommittee held a news conference on Nov. 9 to discuss nationwide increases in infections this winter. The government itself seems hesitant to call this sudden spike the “third wave,” a term that has become normalized in the media, but the subcommittee definitely sees it as ominous. Some people on Twitter took exception to a point the panel made about foreign residents being a possible cause of the increase due to differences in “language and culture.” However, other Twitter pundits noted that, in fact, the subcommittee was not blaming foreign residents at all — rather, the media’s amplification of the discussion made it seem as if the panel was.
Although an isolated example of how the media, especially TV, can blow something out of proportion, the incident illustrates a tendency to elevate specific aspects of an issue as a means of simplifying coverage. The most obvious form this tendency takes is the daily parade of statistics: how many infections based on how many tests, the number of deaths, serious cases, hospitalizations and so on. Statistics require context to make sense.
In its Nov. 19 issue, Shukan Shincho ran an article that provided such context, although some will say the weekly’s conclusions were pre-drawn. The article asked if an increase in COVID-19 infections is really such a problem, and focused on progress made since last spring in treatments and medical preparedness.
According to Shukan Shincho, the mainstream media’s reliance on numbers causes public anxiety when those figures go up, but when you compare them to numbers coming out of Europe and the United States, Japan seems hardly on the highway to hell. And yet in some of these countries, governments are limiting the movement of their citizens in an attempt to contain the virus. Japan has done much better without such restrictions.
Shukan Shincho focuses on the death rate. Deaths from COVID-19 are almost negligible compared to those from seasonal flu in previous years. One doctor explains that, in theory, the number of deaths should be higher than they are now, but that previous measures to check the spread of COVID-19 has led to a reduction in seasonal flu infections. Japanese people have adjusted their behavior in such a way that the danger of infection is less than it would be under normal circumstances. More significantly, testing is better than it was in the spring, so it’s easier to discover infections sooner. Also, new drugs have been introduced to treat specific symptoms successfully. The article implies that most media have given the false impression that COVID-19 is untreatable.
One doctor interviewed by Shukan Shincho thinks the virus is under control in Japan, and adds that face masks are not really necessary in concert halls, trains or movie theaters because people don’t talk so much. There’s also mention of a theory that says people from East Asia are genetically more resistant to the virus. One doctor who says he doesn’t believe this “factor X” explanation nevertheless can’t explain why the death rate in Japan is so much lower than in Europe and the United States and thinks it may simply be “a matter of luck.” Also, the most common fear spread by the media is that the medical system will collapse with a third wave, but Shukan Shincho thinks there’s nothing to worry about because there will likely be fewer seasonal flu cases than usual.
Shukan Shincho’s provocative use of optimism refutes the conventional media narrative, which is more cautious. At the opposite end of this speculative spectrum is an interview that appeared in the Mainichi Shimbun on Nov. 11. Conducted before the recent spike, it features philosopher Tatsuru Uchida and infectious disease expert Kentaro Iwata, who have just published a book about the pandemic. They feel the opposite of Shukan Shincho. The media, they say, has been too complacent about the coming third wave.
This complacency mirrors that of the government, which isn’t implementing measures that might check the spread of the virus because of its effect on economic activity. Logically, they say, the authorities should get the virus under control first, since full economic activity can’t be recovered otherwise, but, as the recent Go To Travel campaign indicates, they seem to want to do everything at once. “It’s like stepping on the brake and the accelerator at the same time,” Iwata says.
Part of the problem is the bureaucratic mindset, which refuses to set goals because without goals no one can accuse you of failure if you don’t achieve them. The media shares in this short-sightedness. They are either incapable or unwilling to look at COVID-19 as a long-term problem, but only see as far as next year, since, according to Iwata, the only stated goal is that everyone “do their best” until the postponed Olympics finally take place, a target Uchida and Iwata think will be difficult to hit.
That much was obvious during International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach’s recent visit to Tokyo. Just before he arrived, the government announced it would continue with the Go To Travel campaign, despite suspicions that the campaign is at least partially to blame for the infection spike. Several media speculated that the Go To announcement was made to reassure Bach that things were under control.
This kind of positivity, which Shukan Shincho has tried to reinforce, was compromised at a joint news conference with Bach and Yoshiro Mori, chairman of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, when an NHK reporter sent in a question mentioning that a survey it had conducted indicated that Olympic corporate partners, whose contracts expire at the end of the year, were nervous because of continuing uncertainty about the games.
Mori demanded to know if NHK had asked everyone in those companies their opinions. If not, how could they gauge their true feelings? He also complained about the question itself, saying it didn’t sound like something NHK would ask. Obviously, Mori believes NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, should approach the matter a certain way. Whether the rest of the media got the message remains to be seen.
See www.philipbrasor.com for addendums to Media Mix columns.
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