Sunday, October 17, 2004

Press: 'A Public Betrayed'! Japan establishment press leaks tips to Japan's weekly magazines

'A Public Betrayed': Establishment Press Leaks Tips to Japan's Weeklies

In a new book, media ethics professor Takesato Watanabe and writer Adam Gamble explore the massive influence of Japan's controversial weekly newsmagazines, or shukanshi. This edited excerpt from the book is the second of two installments.

Because journalists from the weeklies are banned from the press clubs, they are unable to offer their readers the same timely official information provided by press club journalists. Instead, they have to gather material through a variety of alternative methods. Although this may sound like a difficult situation for shukanshi writers and editors, it actually suits them just fine -- so much so that their industry-wide organization, the Japanese Magazine Publishers Association, does not even complain about its members' exclusion from the clubs. In fact, if weekly magazines did belong to Japanese press clubs, not only would they have to pay much more money to support the staff required, but one of their presumed raisons d'être would be eliminated -- they would no longer be able to pose as an "outsider" or alternative press.

Of course, the best way for magazine reporters to get material outside the press clubs is to follow the traditional journalist work ethic of chasing leads and tracking down information. Excellent journalism often requires that reporters go around official sources anyway. Also, it is not impossible for non-press club reporters to arrange interviews with government and corporate sources in Japan; it is just more difficult and time consuming.

Author and press club critic Tatsuya Iwase, who has many years of experience writing for Japanese newsmagazines, prides himself on performing just such investigative reporting. Iwase believes that good investigative reporting is gaining favor with the Japanese public because readers have grown increasingly frustrated with the establishment press and overloaded with the barrage of sensationalism coming from television, radio and elsewhere. Although Iwase is no starry-eyed optimist, he says that the newsmagazine industry is slowly starting to improve. In an interview for this book, he predicted that investigative journalism will eventually make up as much as 20 to 30 percent of the contents of many Japanese weekly newsmagazines. However, Iwase also estimates that currently only about 3 or 4 percent of all the material in a given weekly newsmagazine could be categorized as solid investigative reporting. He qualified this statement by estimating that, unlike in the establishment press where 90 percent or more of all stories are derived from government and corporate sources, as many as half of the stories (at least in non-newspaper-published weeklies) are on original topics that were not initiated by a press release or similar official source.

However, if Iwase and the many who agree with him are correct, and only a tiny percent of all the reporting in Japanese weekly newsmagazines is worthwhile, how do these publications fill their pages each week?

"Weekly magazines are very influential, and the reason is the advertisements. The headlines reproduced in ads on trains and in other publications are nationwide. Millions see them every week."  -- Jun Kamei

One common information-gathering method employed by weekly newsmagazines is simply to bribe press club reporters to "leak" information from the clubs. Indeed, newsmagazines commonly pay press club reporters to write entire stories anonymously, a fact confirmed repeatedly in interviews with numerous newspaper and magazine reporters. Although frowned upon by establishment-media companies, this practice can be a boon for the press club reporters themselves. Not only are they able to earn extra income while plying their trade, they also are provided a much-desired outlet for the hottest insider information, which they can obtain as club members but which club rules and other restrictions often prevent them from disclosing in the establishment press. Yasunori Okadome, the publisher and editor in chief of the monthly scandal magazine Uwasa no Shinso (Truth of Rumors) for 25 years, until its discontinuation in 2004, has estimated that 30 to 40 percent of all the articles in his magazine "come from information leaked by newspaper reporters who feel they cannot write about much of the information they have in their own publications."

Another method is simply to repackage public information already reported in the establishment news media by putting a different spin on it. This usually means making the information somehow more sensational. A good example is a Shukan Shincho article that repeated accusations already widely reported against an innocent man, Yoshiyuki Kono. It is obvious that writers working for the magazine simply added to this public information by interviewing some of Kono’s neighbors and acquaintances and researching his parents' and grandparents' histories. Although the information collected was fundamentally innocuous and had no bearing on the validity of the accusations against Kono (all of which later proved false), Shukan Shincho ran its story about "The Originator of the Poisonous Gas and His Macabre Family Line" as though it had achieved an inside scoop that demonstrated Kono's guilt in an original way.

A variant on this technique is to rehash news already reported elsewhere in the media and then simply hire experts to comment on it. This can be a popular format among Japanese readers, who do not often encounter detailed news analysis in the opinion-shy establishment press. A Shukan Shincho article opens with a criticism of Asahi newspaper's coverage of the "comfort women" story and then simply recounts the opinions of so-called experts (some of whom are nothing but neonationalist cranks), who variously accuse the surviving women of being prostitutes and opportunists.

Yet another popular shukanshi method for gathering material is simply to report hearsay, rumors, or other unreliable sources as news. Such unsubstantiated claims, collected from various neo-Nazi and other Western sources, became the basis for a freelance writer's "proof," published in a Japanese newsmagazine, that no Jews were gassed at Auschwitz.

 'A Public Betrayed': Establishment Press Leaks Tips to Japan's Weeklies

Of course, the easiest and least expensive way to produce "news stories" is simply to invent them, a common practice in the shukanshi industry. Dave Spector explains: "They will use fuzzy expressions like 'A kankeisha ni yoru to ... ' ('According to source A ... '), and they will make up many things. It's so obvious they are making up things. And they are not even interviewing anyone. They are just thinking it up in the editorial room there. Rather than saying they go overboard, I think it's a lot of sloppy journalism that would not cut the mustard in other countries."

The practice of false reporting is so commonplace among the nonestablishment Japanese press that journalists have coined a term for it: netsuzo, or "the manufacturing of the news." In one documented case, a group of sportswriters, wishing to quote the unavailable baseball player Hideo Nomo, agreed on a common statement on the basis of what they "thought the pitcher would say if he were there" and then falsely attributed it to him in print. The National Press Club of Japan even published an account of the incident, written by one of the very sportswriters involved, without any comment that it had been a breach of journalistic ethics.

These are just a few of the more popular methods Japanese newsmagazine reporters commonly employ to get around the lack of access to official sources through the press clubs. Some of these methods are, of course, perfectly legitimate, and certainly none of them are unique to the shukanshi, for they have all been employed by reporters around the world. What is interesting in the case of the shukanshi, however, is that any given issue can include articles that run the gamut of journalistic scruples: from top-notch investigative work to formulaic techniques, to bald-faced lies. This range of quality is perhaps matched only by the magazines' range of subject matters. It is in itself dangerous, since it puts the readers of the weeklies in the difficult position of never being sure how much credence to give what they are reading.

The massive influence of the shukanshi

The influence wielded by Japanese weekly newsmagazines is far more pervasive than is usually recognized. A primary reason for this is their advertising campaigns, which are structured so that 20, 40, or even 80 times the number of people who actually buy the magazines are influenced by their content. These advertisements do not merely promote the magazine as a brand or just give the latest issue's top story. Rather, they feature the table of contents with the headlines of most of the major stories carried in each week's issue. These advertisements are blazoned across posters, displayed prominently on trains and subways around the country, mounted on the inner walls of the cars, or hung from the ceilings. Moreover, the weeklies' tables of contents are regularly advertised in the major national daily newspapers.

One informal group of Japanese media scholars who meet at Doshisha University in Kyoto have conservatively estimated that the table of contents of each issue of the Japanese weekly newsmagazines Shukan Shincho and Shukan Bunshun are seen by between 10 million and 20 million people each week. This range reflects the dynamic nature of the magazine's advertising campaigns, which vary according to their advertising budgets and the effectiveness of their campaigns. Nevertheless, even the lower figure of 10 million is quite substantial. Given that Japan had a population of about 128 million in 2003, this means that between 7.8 and 15.6 percent of the Japanese public is exposed to the table of contents of each newsmagazine every week.

"We are always told to write stories with the headlines in mind. If you can't come up with an enticing headline for a story, don't write it." -- Kensuke Nishioka, a reporter for Shukan Bunshun

The estimate is not hard to get at, as both magazines -- like most of their fellow shukanshi -- advertise their tables of contents in the morning edition of two or three of the five major national daily newspapers. Depending on just which two or three newspapers the magazines advertise in, this portion of the campaign alone means that they are seen by between 5.1 and 20.5 million people. Adding to those that see the advertisements in newspapers are the millions more who see their ubiquitous advertisement on Japanese public transportation -- on trains and on buses. For example, 99 of the 100 individuals in Tokyo who took part in an informal survey for this book said that they regularly read advertisements for weekly newsmagazines that are hung on trains and subways. Indeed, the lone individual who said he did not read the advertisements explained that he probably would read them if only he did not suffer from vision problems!

Thus, while only 52 people of the 100 surveyed said that they read shukanshi regularly, nearly all of them said that they regularly read the headlines in the advertisements for them, and 76 admitted to being influenced by them to some degree. Of course there is also the roughly half a million people who buy shukanshi each week, as well as those who are likely to browse through them in waiting rooms and the like. Given the previous factors, the estimate of 10 million to 20 million is clearly a conservative one, and it may well be that some weeks many more millions of Japanese are exposed to these headlines.

One might suppose that many Japanese might ignore these advertisements. In reality, though, it is quite likely that most Japanese do read them when they see them, if only because they are so provocative and sensational. Jun Kamei explains the popularity of the ads:

"Weekly magazines are very influential, and the reason is the advertisements. The headlines reproduced in ads on trains and in other publications are nationwide. Millions see them every week. And they are very, very clever at getting those one-liner headlines down so that they deliver their messages, be it serious sensationalism or a political agenda on those headlines. They can be very searing, and they can be very seamy. A huge chunk of people in Japan who never buy the periodical walk away thinking that they know about what they are writing every week."

The headlines in the advertisements are often far more sensational than the actual content of the articles. David Kaplan, a freelance journalist with experience in Japan, confirms this reality: "Even those solid reports would get headlines (translated into ad placards) that absolutely lied about the contents. It's pure hype and typical of Japanese magazine publishing."

'A Public Betrayed': Establishment Press Leaks Tips to Japan's Weeklies

When it comes to the headlines of the weeklies, the cart is regularly before the horse. Kensuke Nishioka, an accomplished reporter for Shukan Bunshun, explains that coming up with a good headline may well be the single most important aspect in researching and writing a story for a weekly: "Headlines are the bread and butter for the weeklies. The editor in chief's biggest prerogative is making the advertisements each week. We are always told to write stories with the headlines in mind. If you can't come up with an enticing headline for a story, don't write it."

The tremendous dependence of the newsmagazines on ads to drum up their readerships each week also means that at least some headlines are composed in advance of the news articles themselves. This isn't always the case, and interviews with weekly newsmagazine editors and writers indicate that some magazines have systems in place that help to mitigate the problem. However, the fact remains that a number of each week's articles are completed at the last minute. In these cases, headlines must be written for the advertisements before their corresponding stories have been put to bed, sometimes even before they have been properly researched. Thus, it is not uncommon for there to be a serious disconnect or incongruence between advertised headlines and the content of stories. The real problem arises when the advertised headline asserts something that is not in the story at all or that even contradicts the actual article. In such cases, the millions of people who read the ads but not the stories are completely misled.

Exacerbating the situation is that Japanese newsmagazine headlines are often exceptionally sensational. Keigo Takeda, editor in chief of the Japanese-language edition of Newsweek, who has experience in both U.S. and Japanese journalism, says that even a relatively reserved magazine such as his regularly sexes up its headlines. Takeda is especially aware of this, since the Japanese edition of Newsweek often runs stories that were originally written in English. He says that the original English-language headlines often just aren't sensational enough for the Japanese market. He claims that, unlike the English-language version of Newsweek, which has a broad base of subscribers, the Japanese industry's reliance on newsstand sales demands provocative headlines.

A case in point is a cover story about the insider-trading scandal involving American do-it-yourself icon Martha Stewart. Soon after the story broke in the summer of 2002, both the U.S. and Japanese editions of Newsweek carried the same cover story on the subject. The article was originally written in English and then translated into Japanese. Both editions of the magazine featured the same photograph of Stewart on their covers. The cover of the U.S. edition offered the words "Martha's Mess" below Stewart's photo, with the words "An Inside Trading Scandal Tarnishes The Queen Of Perfection" next to her image. However, Takeda and his editorial team in Japan felt that this headline was just too weak for the Japanese magazine market. As a result, the Japanese edition used the more inflammatory language:  "Martha Stewart: Corrupt Queen" and "The Behind-The-Scenes Suspicions Of The Charismatic Housewife. The Endless Greed Of Wall Street".

Unlike the U.S. edition, the Japanese edition was widely advertised with posters on subways and trains. The poster ad for this particular issue not only featured the Japanese cover with its two significantly stronger, more damning headlines, it also sported an additional two headlines: "Martha Stewart Falls Off Her Pedestal As America's Charismatic Housewife" and "The Shocking Scandal: Her Insider Trading With Her Dubious Circle Of Friends".

It is true that the four Japanese headlines do more than simply sensationalize the story. They also contextualize the story for Japanese readers, who are typically less familiar with Stewart than their U.S. counterparts. Still, the example is revealing. Where one relatively plain headline sufficed for the U.S. magazine, four were required in Japan, two on the actual cover and two more on the ad poster.

Martha Stewart was found guilty of four crimes related to the scandal. However, it is worth noting that it wasn't until May 2003, some 10 months after the article appeared, that any formal charges were lodged against her. If Stewart were later found innocent, the difference in the influence of the U.S. and Japanese headlines would be even starker. For example, as the U.S. cover was not widely advertised, the lone headline published there primarily only reached those people who were actually in physical proximity to the magazine. Those who saw the magazine headline but who did not read the article only learned from the cover that Stewart was involved in a "mess," a relatively mild accusation. Only those U.S. readers who actually took the time to read the article in question learned anything else from Newsweek.

In Japan, however, the more inflammatory headlines presumably reached many more people than did the actual magazine. Many of those who read the headlines on the advertisements simply did not have the benefit of being in the physical proximity of a magazine and, by extension, had a much smaller chance of reading the actual article associated with those headlines. Given that this case involved Newsweek, a "reputable" magazine that is so comparatively tame that it cannot accurately be categorized as a Japanese "weekly," it is easy to imagine how overblown the headlines on domestic Japanese newsmagazines can be.

With shukanshi, it is not at all uncommon for a single fact to be misrepresented and exaggerated, first in the body of an article, a second time in the headline for that article, and then a third time in the advertisements for the magazine -- and this doesn't even take into account the possibility of an especially hot or provocative article being posted on the Internet or repeated by word of mouth. Moreover, each level of exaggeration tends to reach a geometrically larger, and less well-informed, group of people.

Of course, it would be foolhardy to think that all Japanese readers patently believe what they are exposed to by weekly newsmagazine headlines, or articles, for that matter. However, it would be equally naive to suppose that the millions who read the headlines just dismiss them. Studies indicate that Japanese tend to put far more faith in what they read than do Westerners. Media professor and author Kenichi Asano states it simply: "People say that they don't believe Japanese weekly newsmagazines, but they do. It's impossible to read them or their headlines all over the trains and in ads and to simply assume that everything is false. It's only natural to believe that there is truth to things that are published so widely by national publishing companies."

"A Public Betrayed" will be released 2004 August 17 by Regnery Publishing

Takesato Watanabe is a professor of media ethics at Doshisha University in Kyoto and was a visiting scholar at Harvard University in 2001. He is the author of a dozen Japanese-language books, including "Information Democracy and the People's Right to Communicate" (2000). He is co-author of the Encyclopedia of Media & Communication Studies (1999). His next book, "The Media and Power Structure in Modern Japan, 1945–2000," will be published in English in 2005 through Harvard University's East Asia Monograph Series.

Adam Gamble is a writer and investigative reporter, and the author of "In the Footsteps of Thoreau." He has served as publisher at On Cape Publications in Massachusetts since 1995, where he has produced some two-dozen books. During the three years of research that went into "A Public Betrayed," he personally interviewed more than 150 individuals.

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