Have you noticed the big change that has taken place on TV news shows since the last Monday of March? People appearing in the programs are now distancing themselves from each other. It is one of the signs that Japan is belatedly adopting social distancing — keeping a distance of at least 1.8 meters — to avoid being infected or infecting others with the new coronavirus.
TV footage on overseas news often show people in lines at supermarkets keeping that far apart from each other. That is social distancing.
Japanese TV news anchors call on people to avoid the “three closenesses”— closed space, crowded places and conversations in close proximity — to prevent COVID-19 infections. But a broadcasting studio is indeed a place featuring all of these types of closeness.
From my experience as a guest commentator, I know how closed a space a TV studio is. In TV studios, three times as many people as those who appear on TV are working behind the scenes — with the TV personalities and staff working at a close distance with each other. For the sake of visuals, commentators sit so close that their elbows are almost touching. The program may last an hour or two, but its recording takes even longer. Those people speaking to each other at such a close distance over an extended time can be a source of infection.
TV has a great influence on viewers’ behavior. The behavior of people on TV changes that of the audiences.
On March 28, hoping to change people’s awareness, I made the following tweet; “I am surprised by the media people’s bias toward ‘normality.’ As long as TV programs are showing the standard everyday scenes, people’s behavior will not change. People involved in image production must strongly care about the message conveyed by an image. While their reports on the COVID-19 outbreak are splendid, people in the TV studios are not doing social distancing.
In the United States, TV personalities in a studio keep a distance of 1.8 meters from each other. Sports and weather commentators are reporting from their homes.
I also sent an email to the Women in Media Network Japan that stated Japanese TV news programs on the pandemic are not persuasive enough since people making the programs are working in a small, congested space. Many responded by raising the issue in their workplaces, and TV broadcasters were just starting discussion on the problem. TV personality Keiko Kojima replied to me that that people appearing in those programs are worried about being infected.
The first program that put social distancing into practice on the studio was one broadcast by NHK World-Japan. Yumiko Murkami, head of the OECD Tokyo Centre, upon reading my message, proposed social distancing when she appeared in the program. The three commentators in the program agreed and kept a distance from each other — far enough that their extended arms would not touch.
Once such an example is set, Japanese people have a tendency to quickly follow suit. Soon commentators in other news programs and shows started keeping a distance from each other. In some programs, commentators are now speaking from different rooms so as to reduce the risk of infections by minimizing the contact with one another. The TV screen may have to be divided into two, but viewers will soon get used to it since the format is already common in TV news programs overseas.
In overseas TV news programs, a minimum number of people are called in to the studio and experts make comments remotely from home. It was when I asked a friend of mine in France to send me images of TV programs there that I found there’s something wrong with the way Japanese TV news shows are produced.
In the recent broadcast of a popular TV news show in the U.S., the main newscaster was speaking from her home, using a hand-drawn flip chart. In its opening, the newscaster’s children were playing musical instruments in the background. That was the means to convey what the program wanted to say to the viewers — how it is important to keep more than an arm’s length distance from each other, and that the U.S. was at a critical stage in its efforts to stop infections and the collapse of the medical system already taking place.
No matter how seriously the issue is discussed, viewers will not get the message if the images shown on the screen remains the same as usual. It is therefore important for TV programs to change now.
In Japan, many memorial programs were broadcast in recent weeks to mourn the death of popular comedian Ken Shimura due to COVID-19. It must be pointed out that his elderly friends and former colleagues of the Drifters group were put to risk of exposure to the virus when they were called to the studios. We are already in a stage where no one can tell who is infected before symptoms appear. I wish that the guests had stayed in separate rooms.
Avoid the three types of closeness. Keep a distance of 1.8 meters when you are meeting with others. Stay home except when you have to do essential tasks. People who can work remote should do so. Give a big thanks to the medical staff who are working under very difficult conditions and other workers engaged in keeping up basic infrastructure and services.
As of early March, the number of infected people in New York or Italy were roughly the same as the figure in Tokyo at the beginning of April. It is time to change our behavior to contain the infections a month from now. It took only two weeks for the number of infections in New York to increase 100-fold. We need to imagine what the situation could be in Tokyo two weeks ahead.
Kaori Muto, a professor of information studies at the University of Tokyo, remarked that family members should talk and decide in advance what they will do if one of them falls into the terminal phase of COVID-19. Japan’s medical services are already so strained that people need be prepared for a stage in the near future in which triage must be carried out as being done in Italy and Spain.
The future of Japan depends on decisions by leaders and actions taken by every individual.
Toko Shirakawa is a journalist and an author of books on women’s issues, including lifestyles, careers and gender equality. A visiting professor at Sagami Women’s University, she is also a member of the Cabinet Office panel on work-style reforms.