In recent years, Japanese media have been under sharp public criticism. That's the kind of criticism you wouldn't expect in the United States. Some people argue that revealing the names of people killed in murder and natural disasters is violating their and their families' privacy and that the media want it just for commercialism. The number of people who agree with this opinion seems to have increased rapidly. What would Japanese reporters need to do to gain the understanding and sympathy of society?
A Burst of Criticism
Each prefectural police department in Japan has a voluntary organization called the "press club (kisha-club)." Major media companies, such as newspapers and television stations, belong to the club. It is customary for the police to provide the media with material outlining the case. The documents include the names of the dead.
In some cases, the fire department provides information to the press. In the case of typhoons and other natural disasters, affected local governments sometimes offer information. For a long time, journalists have taken this practice for granted.
However, it has become increasingly difficult to report the names of the dead.
For example, in July 2016, a former employee of a facility called "Tsukui Yamayuri En" where mentally disabled people live, in Sagamihara city, broke into it and killed 19 people with a knife. The police did not disclose the names of the dead, citing active requests from the bereaved families. One of the family members pointed out that some believe that revealing their names would expose them to prejudice and discrimination against disabled people.
Also, in the arson and murder case of 35 people in July 2019 at "Kyoto Animation (Kyoani)," an animation production company in Kyoto, it took more than one month for the police to announce the names of all the victims. The police told the media that they took into consideration the feelings of the bereaved families who wanted to attend funerals and other memorial services quietly, without being annoyed by media coverage.
After receiving information on Kyoani-case from police, media outlets reported the names of the dead. Many people criticized it on the Internet.
For example, copywriter and media consultant Osamu Sakai analyzed how many tweets contained the words "name" and "Kyoani." Between August 25th and 31st, including 27th, the day when the media reported the real names, 394,000 tweets appeared. During that period, 222,000 tweets were sent out about the protests in Hong Kong, indicating a high interest in the issue of victims' names reporting. Many of the tweets contained the word "masu-gomi." It is a slang derived from the word "masu-komi," which means mass-communication and multiplied by "gomi," which means garbage.
Journalist Shojiro Akashi also criticized the media for "an outrageous act in disregard of the wishes of the bereaved family."
The Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association published a booklet entitled "Name and media coverage" in 2006 and stressed the importance of publishing the names of victims. They argued that it is primarily a service to the "right to know" of citizens, secondly is to monitor abuse of power by the government, and thirdly is to record history.
The booklet introduced some recent examples of refusal by authorities to disclose the victims' names. They attributed the rise to heightened public awareness of human rights and privacy and said the 2003 Act on the Protection of Personal Information was a direct catalyst.
In June 2018, Michiko Kawahara of the Asahi Newspaper, who has covered issues concerning victims since the 1990s, wrote that there would be two reasons for this matter. One is the development of the Internet and social networks. With victims' names, people unrelated to the case can easily search for relevant information. It sometimes spread even if the bereaved families do not want it.
The other reason Kawahara pointed was that the police have come to attach more importance to the consideration of crime victims. For example, in 2008, a system was introduced in which the families of victims participate in criminal trials.
Shuichi Yutaka of the Asahi, who has covered issues such as the Constitution and media ethics, claimed that the excessive media coverage of the victim's family might have caused social backlash. He also pointed out the possibility that criticism of the media, symbolized by the slang "masu-gomi," was amplified as social network users exchanged opinions.
In summary, criticism of victims' names reporting and authorities' reluctance to provide information have gradually spread since the 2000s, and have expanded rapidly in the last three years or so. Yutaka said in a telephone interview, "[The change] was rapid. In my personal feeling, it's really recent."
No Such Discussion in the U.S.
By referring to the situation in the U.S., it would be possible to view media criticism in Japan from a relative perspective.
One of the most severe social problems in recent years in the U.S. has been the mass shooting that occurs frequently. 58 people were killed in a hotel in Las Vegas in October 2017, the deadliest case in the U.S. since 1949. The second most fatal case is the murder of 49 people at a night club in Orlando in June 2016. The third is the killing of 32 people at Virginia Tech in April 2006.
On October 5, four days after the Las Vegas case, the local Clark County Coroner's Office released the names, ages, and addresses of all those killed to the media, according to the Las Vegas Sun. The New York Times published an article on October 2, three days earlier than the official announcement, in which it interviewed family members and acquaintances to introduce the figures of all the dead. They also published the photos of 47 of the 58 people.
In the Orlando case, the city of Orlando announced the names and ages of the 49 dead on its website dated June 12, the very day of the attack. CBS News reported the names and pictures of all of them on its website updated June 14.
Notable was the Virginia Tech case. The university has a website that lists the names, photos, and profiles of all 32 dead. Instead of providing minimal information in response to requests from the media, they appear to be acting voluntarily to share information. The university noted that they created the list with the consent of the family. On April 18, two days after the case, NPR posted the names of all 32, including photos of 29.
In summary, the U.S. media is as eager as the Japanese media, or more so, to report the names of the dead. Authorities are also actively providing information to the press and, in some cases, making efforts to disseminate information themselves. Overall, the importance and necessity of disseminating information about the dead seem to be generally shared by society.
Christopher Daly, a professor of journalism at Boston University, said in an interview that for police and fire departments in the U.S., the provision of information to the media is not law- based. Still, it is a widely accepted common practice. They may delay the announcement to the press if they cannot contact the bereaved families. However, the purpose of contacting the families is not to seek the permission of disclosure. It is to prevent them from hearing the first report through the media.
According to Daly, reporting names are so apparent to American journalists. "The premise of the starting point is always; let's have full disclosure. Let's have everybody's name and age, and we'll start from that," he said.
The primary purpose of reporting the names of the dead is to record the facts accurately, Daly said. For example, families of people who happen to be at the murder scene can confirm the safety of their loved ones by reading a list of the names of the dead.
Daly added that the U.S. has a tradition of not believing in the government since its founding. Therefore, he said, Americans believe that government information should be as public as possible so that people outside the government can verify it.
Thus, there has been little discussion in the U.S. about the pros and cons of reporting victims' names, including murder cases and disasters, Daly said. One of the few exceptions is the practice of keeping the names of sex crime victims private. However, some have argued that excluding sex crimes is unfair and that information should be made public just like other crimes.
Why So Different?
Journalists in Japan and the U.S. seem to share the idea of why reporting names is essential. The question is, why the criticism against media is so different between the two countries.
The first thing to be doubted is the difference in the credibility of the media. However, according to the World Values Survey conducted from 2010 to 2014, to a question asking confidence in the press, 22.7% of Americans answered: "A great deal" or "Quite a lot," compared to 70.6% in Japan. In other words, the Japanese people trust the media more than Americans do.
Also, as Daly pointed out, the credibility of the government may be low in the U.S., which may make the media relatively more trustworthy. However, the result of the World Values Survey is different. When asked about their confidence in the government, 32.6% of Americans answered: "A great deal" or "Quite a lot," compared to 24.3% in Japan.
Therefore, it would be too simplistic, or wrong, to think like this: "Confidence in the government is low in the U.S. and high in Japan. Confidence in the media is high in the U.S. and low in Japan. That is why the Japanese people easily criticize the media."
No verifiable quantitative data was found to address this issue. But Yutaka's comment was instructive. He pointed out, "Freedom of expression and freedom of the press is important to monitor the government's power. There may be a difference (between Japan and the U.S) in the people's understanding of its fundamental value."
The Japanese Constitution guarantees freedom of the press. But there are a certain number of people who think that after defeat in World War II, a new Constitution was "imposed" by the U.S., which won the war and occupied Japan.
The Liberal Democratic Party, the ruling party in Japan, has written in its platform that it aims to establish a "voluntary Constitution," which the Japanese people would choose on their initiative. It is not strange that those who do not recognize the value of the Constitution do not value freedom of the press in the same way.
What Should Japanese Reporters Do?
It is not sure that the value in reporting the victims' names always outweighs the disadvantages that the victims and their families may suffer. It is true, though, that victims' names reporting can make a story more persuasive. In the reporting on Harvey Weinstein's sexual harassment, the fact that the victims revealed their names in the accusation has dramatically made the articles powerful and influenced society. It was not a matter of the dead but clearly shows the importance of reporting the victims' names.
Journalists need to make many readers understand its value, Yutaka said. He commented on what they need to gain sympathy from readers.
"Instead of saying the reasons [of why it is necessary to report the names], journalists should put their words into practice," Yutaka said. "An article based on the relationship of trust between the interviewer and the interviewee would have a strong message naturally. If we could continue to show the examples of such reports, they would be a counterweight to the criticism."
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Bosman, Julie et al. (October 2, 2017) Las Vegas Shooting Victims: The Full List, The New York Times, Retrieved December 3, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/02/us/vegas-victims-names.html
CBS News. (June 14, 2016)Orlando nightclub shooting victims' names released, Retrieved December 3, 2019, from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/orlando-nightclub-mass-shooting-pulse-victims/
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Daly, Christopher. Personal interview. November 6, 2019
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Yutaka, Shuichi. Personal telephone interview. November 21, 2019