Thursday, November 08, 2007

Media as Advocate: The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force Refueling Operations

Here, I wrote how the major newspaper editorials broke* on the Fukuda administration's new JMSDF refueling bill. Now it is my belief, based on an admittedly small sample**, that few Japanese voters bother to read editorials. What then, accounts for the fact that Yomiuri random-sample opinion polls consistently show higher support (say, 5-10 percentage points) for the ruling coalition than Asahi polls? The answer is simple: The media uses the reporting, consciously or unconsciously, to advocate. For example:

On 6 November, the DPJ produced its counterproposal to the Fukuda administration's refueling bill, and the English translations of the reports came out today. The headlines read:

Yomiuri DPJ flexible on refueling bill

Asahi Minshuto: Refueling must have U.N. OK

In other words, Yomiuri and Asahi attend the same press conference and read the same press release, but Yomiuri comes up with a favorable reading for the Fukuda administration while Asahi shows us a DPJ that is sticking to its guns. Here, Yomiuri is the one that appears to be editorializing. To claim as Yomiuri's does that "saying that if the United Nations adopts a resolution authorizing multinational antiterrorism operations in the Indian Ocean, Japan would then consider whether it should take part in the activities" is anything but a reiteration of Mr. Ozawa's original position is a little far fetched. Parsing that as a demonstration of "flexibility" requires a stretch of the imagination and more than a dollop (what the heck is a dollop?) of hope.

This continued. The following day (7 November), Masayoshi Teraoka, the Defense Director of the Maritimes Staff who had realized that JMSDF's Tokiwa had transferred 800,000 gallons, not 200,000 gallons as announced, to the US Forces, testified (not under oath) in the Lower House. The headlines? Here is Yomiuri:

給油量訂正問題、寺岡元課長は未報告認める (Refueling Volume Correction Problem, Former Director Teraoka Admits Not Reporting [Error]) (no English version available)

It follows this up today (8 November) in a much smaller article tucked away on page 4 that adds a potentially crucial point with:

給油量問題、元海幕防衛課長は上司に相談…参考人質疑 (Refueling Volume Problem, Former Maritime Staff self-Defense Director Consulted Superiors… from Testimony Q&A) (no English version available yet)***.

Asahi came forward on 7 November on the former director's testimony with all those points and more in:

元課長「給油量誤り、幹部に相談」 守屋氏認識の可能性 (Former Director "Refueling Volume Mistaken, Consulted High Officials"****, Possibility Mr. Mori Knew)

Note that not only did Asahi put the former director's superiors/high officials in the breaking (7 November) story, it injected a bit of speculation, albeit a not unreasonable conjecture, into the headline. The article itself says, "He revealed that, at the time, after being pointed out by reporters after Tōru Ishikawa, Chairman of the JSDF Joint Staff Committee, announced the erroneous refueling volume that the refueling volume was too small, he had consulted with Takemasa Moriya, then Defense bureau Director-General, and other high officials at the Self-Defense Agency." (translated from: 当時、誤った給油量を石川亨統合幕僚会議議長が発表した後に記者から給油量が少ないとの指摘を受け、守屋武昌防衛局長ら当時の防衛庁幹部と相談していたことを明らかにした。) Now unless Asahi is outright lying, I think that it is fair to infer, as Asahi did, that it is plausible, even likely, that the Mr. Moriya and his colleagues had understood the possibility of an error****. This possibility does not translate into certain knowledge, or even willful ignorance. On the other hand, Yomiuri did not even mention this exchange. Moreover, Asashi attached the photo of Mr. Teraoka in the Diet after his testimony to the article. Yomiuri did not, and explicitly stated in its 7 November article that the head of the special committee that called him in had requested the media to refrain from taking his picture in the Diet.

Today (8 November), Asahi continues at top of its web page (at a minimum the equivalent of the print version front page) with:

元課長「中間報告、内局*****への調査不十分」 給油量問題 (Former Director, "Interim Report, Investigation of Bureaucracy (naikyoku) Insufficient"****, re Refueling Volume Problem)

Note the contrast with the laconic, bare-bones Yomiuri report on the same day.

It is hard not to assume that this difference is connected to the editorial decision on the part of the respective newspapers to oppose or support the resumption of the refueling operations. It is also hard not to think that with this steady advocacy, Yomiuri readers will tend more and more to support extension while Asahi will increase their mistrust of the administration's intentions. In other words, it is through the articles that the media conducts a usually subtle form of advocacy. Journalism cannot completely free itself from this. Editorial decisions must be made about the relative importance of facts and incidents as they are put together as articles, sections, and entire editions. This will inevitably be informed by the individual and collective judgment of the reporters and editors. Still, it is my view that a thorough, comparative survey will reveal that the media too often slips into advocacy without informing public that they are no longer engaging in straight reporting. This, of course, is not limited to the Japanese media.

Finally, as a kind of sidebar, I'm sure that no media organization hides its identity when it conducts polls. Although the selection of the telephone numbers (or households) may be random, I'm also sure that willingness to answer questions would be higher if, say, the newspaper conducting the poll is the one the responder subscribes to. In this respect, it would be interesting to see a poll that shows the correlation between newspaper subscription and opinion. In fact, I'm sure somebody must be doing it.

* MTC kindly points out in the comments that Asahi had already come out against the return of the JSDF refueling vessels.

**True confessions: I never read editorials until I started blogging. Even today, I usually look at them to see if I can work them into a narrative.

*** The print version is headlined differently: 給油量訂正問題 石破氏らに報告 元防衛課長> (Refueling Volume Correction Problem, Reported to Mr. Ishiba, etc. Self-defense Director) (no English version available yet).

**** Note that Asahi plays fast and loose with quotation marks. The Teraoka quotes are not direct quotes, but are summaries of or could even be inferences from his words. But it is not alone. Shisaku takes note of this widespread, annoying journalistic conventionhere. No reputable U.S. media outlet to my knowledge does this.

***** In the article itself, Mr. Teraoka is reported to have been referring to 内局(同省制服組), or bureaucracy (uniformed officials of the Ministry), a clarification , if true, that would exclude bureaucrats like Mr. Moriya, which is the whole point of the DPJ investigation, which Asahi wholeheartedly supports.

I can play this game too. For example, change the next-to-last sentence in the first paragraph like this:

What then, accounts for the fact that Asahi random-sample opinion polls consistently show higher opposition (say, 5-10 percentage points) for the ruling coalition than Yomiuri polls?

Don't you think that the switch casts a (very) slightly unfavorable light on Asahi, in contrast to the original version, which gives you the feeling that it's the Yomiuri that is pushing an agenda? In fact, I'm sure do it all the time, without even thinking.


Janne Morén said...

Media everywhere does this, as you say, and it's really unavoidable. The "objective viewpoint" frequently does not exist - you believe an official or distrust him, for instance, there is no objective stance. And even when it does, reporters and editors are only human and opinionated (perhaps especially those people more than others). Adding subtle color is unavoidable.

In fact, too hard striving for an "objective middle" is damaging. That is the cause of nutcases that don't believe in evolution or in germs as a source of disease - or a round Earth - simply because they are an opposing viewpoint and "deserves equal time". A good media outlet takes a stand.

Better than to strive for unattainable impartiality is to do ones best, but also declare your viewpoint clearly so people can judge for themselves how reliable you are in their eyes. Yomiuri and Asahi are good examples; once you know which way they're leaning it's easy to "tweak" the articles accordingly when reading them.

BTW: "dollop" is a substantial drop of something. Especially heavy, sticky liquids like tar, molasses and such, where a "dollop" is enough liquid for it to form a drop, detach and fall by itself.

Jun Okumura said...

I have the makings of a long response in my head, but I don't have time right now, so I'll incorporate it into a later post on Yomiuri and Tsuneo Watanabe's role in the Grand Coalitions talks. In the meantime, Shisaku provides the essence of a good part of my thoughts.