Words From the Editor

Mak Yin-ting

[中文][Apr 2011 - The Journalist] “East Japan in ruins” against “Five fire engines working non-stop”.. These were the headlines of some newspapers in Hong Kong and Japan on March 18. The discrepancy in the focus between the two was just too huge to avoid controversy.

It originated in the meeting between Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan and the special advisor to the cabinet, Kiyoshi Sasamori. After the meeting, the advisor said Kan complained that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) lacked a sense of crisis and the possibility of East Japan facing total ruin should not be ruled out by TEPCO.

Japan’s mainstream media did not regard it as a big deal. For example, Asahi Shimbun only put it in the later part of a report in the middle of Page 2 and did not even mention it in the headlines. The headline of the newspaper that day was “Five Fire Engines Work Non-stop”.
On the contrary, quite a number of mainstream newspapers in Hong Kong, as well as Taiwan, used “Ruin of East Japan Can’t be Ruled Out” as headlines. However, one could not find any explanation for the hypothesis, not least to say any mention of measures to cope with such a situation.

Some commentators criticized the Hong Kong media for taking things out of context and sensationalising. These commentators also praised Japan's media for its professionalism and the straightforward reporting. However, I can't see how this can be regarded as fair comment. We must put these accounts in the cultural context of the two places and the readers they serve respectively.

As a matter of fact, there are media resorting to sensationalism in both Hong Kong and Japan. However, the mainstream media in Japan is extremely cautious and conservative. They seldom criticize the government because it may lead to loss of membership in the Japan National Press Club without which a media outlet is not entitled to regular official information.

I read the whole week’s Asahi Shimbun after the nuclear leakage in Fukushima. Apart from March 15, which headlined the possibility of a core meltdown, the anxiety and insecurity caused by the nuclear leak were reported in the inside pages, not as headlines, on all other days.
The focus was on the casualty and what actions were taken by government, departments and TEPCO. The disastrous and dangerous consequences of the leakage were rarely mentioned, if at all, and there was no questioning of whether TEPCO had covered up. This attribute of extreme cautiousness is the stance of the newspaper to serve the Japanese people without causing any panic.

This stance is even more pronounced for Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK). As a public service broadcaster, NHK has rich resources and some of their reporters are nuclear energy experts. However, it is in their culture to put more stress on the official view. So the main theme of the reports was to inform and calm the people: There are nuclear leaks but the public is safe. Actually, it is quite similar to the propaganda tone of China: There is a problem but the party will, or has, solved it.

According to Masato Kajimoto, teaching consultant of Journalism and Media Studies Center of the University of Hong Kong, NHK even had guidelines on words to be used. In the first two weeks after the earthquake the word “crisis” could not be used to describe the earthquake and the disasters caused. More interesting, NHK used a delineated word “off the Pacific Ocean earthquake” and sometimes add the word “Tohoku” to “specify” the location. Such descriptions gave people an impression that Japan was not directly involved. But all of a sudden, two weeks after the earthquake, the ban was lifted and anchors, reporters as well as commentators on NHK used the word “crisis”. It is believed that the decision to lift the ban was made by top management.

The technical professionalism of NHK is high but it is doubtful if NHK can uphold the highest professionalism in defence of the principle of the freedom of the press. Did NHK serve the best interests of the Japanese people by its low-key approach to the disaster and its failure to alert the public to the severity of the aftermath of the nuclear leak? The performance of the mainstream media was criticized by the public and quite a number of them switched to the internet to seek the information they needed.

Problem of Quality

It is true that the Hong Kong media handled the remarks of Naoto Kan too loosely. At least, in citing the words, the local media should look into the context of the statement and seek expert views on the issue. It is totally unimaginable to predict that Japan might have to move its capital to some other location without any solid ground.

At this juncture, the quality, experience and working conditions of the local media are at stake. Since the remuneration for journalists is low and the workload is heavy, the dropout rate of journalists has been steadily rising. According to a survey conducted by the Hong Kong Journalists Association, half of the working journalists now have been in the field for seven years or less. With such experience, they are good at covering daily news while finding it difficult to do investigative reporting. This may partly explain why investigative reports have become scarce.

More worrisome is the survey finding that 32 percent of interviewees said they might leave the industry in two years’ time. The figure jumped to 60 percent if the time frame is extended to four years.

How can the sustainability of an industry not be at stake with such a high exodus potential? While vacancies can be filled up by fresh graduates, the loss of experience cannot be easily substituted. If the situation lasts for long, the decline in quality will become a necessary evil.

The Journalist interviewed reporters who intend to change career, those who have already left the industry and those who returned to it after a stint in another industry. Their feelings are mixed. They are dissatisfied with the deteriorating working conditions and feel helpless, but yet they are passionate and full of enthusiasm. After listening to their heartfelt voices, the senior managements and media bosses should have greater respect for those who stand fast to their journalistic work.

As a matter of fact, the alarm bell has been ringing for some time. If the senior managements and media bosses still remain indifferent to the worsening situation the death knell may ring soon.

United, we can stop this approaching death knell.