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Sinking a bold foray into watchdog journalism in Japan via Columbia Journalism Review

IT SEEMED LIKE COMPELLING JOURNALISM: a major investigative story published by The Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s second largest daily newspaper, about workers fleeing the Fukushima nuclear plant against orders.

It was the work of a special investigative section that had been launched with much fanfare to regain readers’ trust after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in March 2011, when the Asahi and other media were criticized for initially repeating the official line that the government had everything safely under control.

The team had been producing award winning journalism for three years, but the story on the workers would be the last for some of its ace reporters. And its publication in May 2014 would come to mark the demise of one of the most serious efforts in recent memory by a major Japanese news organization to embrace a more independent approach to journalism.

The new section gave reporters a broad mandate to range across the Asahi’s rigid internal silos in search of topics, while also holding to higher journalistic standards, such as requiring using the names of people quoted in stories instead of the pseudonyms common in Japanese journalism.

The Investigative Reporting Section proved an instant success, winning Japan’s top journalism award two years in a row for its exposure of official coverups and shoddy decontamination work around the nuclear plant, which was crippled when a huge earthquake and tsunami knocked out vital cooling systems. The section’s feistier journalism offered hope of attracting younger readers at a time when the 7 million-reader Asahi and Japan’s other national dailies, the world’s largest newspapers by circulation, were starting to feel the pinch from declining sales.

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The Asahi Shimbun believes such investigative reporting is indispensable,” the newspaper’s president at the time, Tadakazu Kimura, declared in an annual report in 2012. The new investigative section “does not rely on information obtained from press clubs, but rather conducts its own steadfast investigations that require real determination.”

That is why it was all the more jarring when, just two years later, the Asahi abruptly retreated from this foray into watchdog reporting. In September 2014, the newspaper retracted the story it had published in May about workers fleeing the Fukushima plant against orders, punishing reporters and editors responsible for the story, slashing the size of the new section’s staff and forcing the resignation of Kimura, who had supported the investigative push.

A newspaper-appointed committee of outside experts later declared that the article, which the Asahi had trumpeted as a historic scoop, was flawed because journalists had demonstrated “an excessive sense of mission that they ‘must monitor authority.’”

While the section was not closed down altogether, its output of major investigative articles dropped sharply as the remaining journalists were barred from writing about Fukushima.

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“In Japanese journalism, scoops usually just mean learning from the ministry officials today what they intend to do tomorrow,” said Makoto Watanabe, a former reporter in the section who quit the Asahi in March because he felt blocked from doing investigative reporting. “We came up with different scoops that were unwelcome in the Prime Minister’s Office.”

Abe and his supporters on the nationalistic right seized on missteps by the Asahi in its coverage of Fukushima and sensitive issues of World War II-era history to launch a withering barrage of criticism that the paper seemed unable to withstand. The taming of the Asahiset off a domino-like series of moves by major newspapers and television networks to remove outspoken commentators and newscasters.

Political interference in the media was one reason cited by Reporters Without Borders in lowering Japan from 11th in 2010 to 72nd out of 180 nations in this year’s annual ranking of global press freedoms, released on April 20, 2016.

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But government pressure fails to fully explain the Asahi’s retreat. Some Asahi reporters and media scholars say the government was able to exploit weaknesses within Japanese journalism itself, particularly its lack of professional solidarity and its emphasis on access-driven reporting. At the Asahi’s weakest moment, other big national newspapers lined up to bash it, essentially doing the administration’s dirty work, while also making blatant efforts to poach readers to shore up their declining circulations.

The knockout blow, however, came from within the Asahi itself, as reporters in other, more established sections turned against the upstart investigative journalists. The new section’s more adversarial approach to journalism had earned it wide resentment for threatening the exclusive access—enjoyed by the Asahi as part of the mainstream media—to the administration and the powerful central ministries that govern Japan.

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“When the chips were down, they saw themselves as elite company employees, not journalists,” said Yorimitsu, who after the Fukushima article’s retraction was reassigned to a Saturday supplement where he writes entertainment features.

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Under Yorimitsu, the section’s crowning achievement was an investigative series called “The Promethean Trap,” a play on the atomic industry’s early promise of becoming a second fire from heaven like the one stolen by Prometheus in Greek mythology. The series, which appeared daily beginning in October 2011, won The Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association Prize, Japan’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, in 2012 for its reporting on such provocative topics as a gag-order placed on scientists after the nuclear accident, and the government’s failure to release information about radiation to evacuating residents. The series spawned some larger investigative spin-offs, including an exposé of corner-cutting in Japan’s multi-billion dollar radiation cleanup, which won the prize in 2013.

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However, scholars and former section reporters say the setback was too severe. They say the Asahi’s decision to punish its own journalists will discourage others from taking the same risks inherent in investigative reporting. Worse, they said the Asahi seemed to lapse back into the old, access-driven ways of Japan’s mainstream journalism. “The Asahi retreated from its experiment in risky, high-quality journalism, back into the safety of the press clubs,” said Tatsuro Hanada, a professor of journalism at Waseda University in Tokyo. Hanada was so dismayed by the Asahi’s retreat that he established Japan’s first university-based center for investigative journalism at Waseda this year. “It makes me think that the days of Japan’s huge national newspapers may be numbered.”

 

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