Freeing of the Press -- New Media Journalism in Japan

Back to Contents of Issue: April 2001

The Net is changing the way Japanese reporters approach their craft -- and the way Japanese readers approach reporters.

by Daniel Scuka

AS THE EXISTING infrastructure of old media -- and old media itself -- becomes marginalized, it's important to consider how journalism in Japan will evolve. With the Net, the line between unbiased content and highly biased advertising is growing fuzzier. Web Gendai and the Nikkei BP sites are prime examples of this (both offer access to shopping a few clicks away from "real" content such as product reviews). Perhaps one measure of how the Net is affecting Japan's media is to what extent the art of journalism itself is being transformed.

"Traditional journalism is narrow and one way," says Keiichiro Tsukamoto, president of Impress, one of Japan's liveliest new publishers. "The journalism that [helps] mass media, such as mainstream newspapers, which only provide their opinions in one direction -- to readers -- will decay. But journalism that is more broadly defined as audience-oriented and that has close contact with readers -- we'll start seeing more of this in the future."

But while a clearer picture is starting to emerge, there remain questions on how to put new media journalism into practice in the Japan context. Some point to the need for rules to define online journalism -- drawing clear lines between advertisement and editorials, or on how to report breaking news. "We haven't come up with new rules to go with new journalism on the Net," says Tsukamoto. "We are still at a learning stage and don't know how to deal with issues a lot of times. It might take five to ten years to establish new rules for journalism."

What's an example of a "rule" that might differentiate the new journalism from the old? For instance, in Japan's old media, it has been rare for news stories to show individual writers' or journalists' names at the byline, making it impossible to know who actually wrote any particular story. The effect of this practice, aside from ensuring that few Japanese journalists become famous, has been to unnaturally boost the importance of media branding. News is taken as being authoritative because it comes from the Nikkei, for example, not because it came from a Japanese John Markoff or Edward Murrow. Hence, audiences turn repeatedly to the well-known media brands for news and information, helping enforce the conglomerates' power. Individual journalists can and largely do have highly developed ethical senses, and will pay a lot more attention to the accuracy and credibility of a story for which they take personal responsibility. Media conglomerates, on the other hand, especially in Japan, are more apt to breach audience trust when they can hide behind the unimpeachable shield of their brand name. "[Newspapers] say what they publish is public information and shouldn't be bylined. I think that's just an escape from responsibility," says atmark IT CEO Atsuo Fujimura. "We try to feature the writers and the editors. Our articles are all bylined. IT writers are usually shy and you don't see many articles with bylines; what's important is whether the individual can write articles persuasive to readers."

Tsukamoto is thinking beyond merely restating traditional journalistic practices for the new electronic media. New media journalism in Japan will have to cater for entirely new features, like interactivity, that old media -- and old journalists -- never had to contend with. "People in the media all seem to be puzzled or confused about interactivity," says Tsukamoto. "However, audiences seem to be ahead of the game; they've already started raising questions regarding the credibility of information published by one-way media." He sees this two-way querying as the start of a screening process in which audiences will (eventually) select which media sources they deem trustworthy based on interactive questions. "Now, journalists can finally bring PCs into the press room," he explains, "but the style is still one-way communication. It almost never happens that a journalist uploads news onto the Web right away, or sends it out by email to invite readers to send in their own questions. But I think we will start seeing this happen more in the future."

But there are some worries that the growth of new media may in fact be a threat to any sort of renewed or revitalized journalism. Broadcasting via multichannel TV may be particularly problematic, since this media is expected by many to be very lucrative and may attract many new players. "Their ambition to grow large might cause the broadcasting business to change into something other than journalism, which is not acceptable. Journalism is not a profit-making activity, but I'm afraid that may change due to money," says Keiichi Katsura, academic at the Tokyo University of Information Sciences. "The quality of journalism should be supported by individual journalists' professional ethics."

He also worries that the Net, ironically, may make it even easier for some journalists to establish and maintain cozy, often-criticized relationships with the very politicians that the media supposedly should be keeping an eye on. "Change in the work style of professional journalists is more of an issue than technological change. With the growth of the Net, relationships between politicians and reporters might become more [prevalent]. It's now possible for them to form much stronger exclusive relationships for themselves," he says.

Impress' Tsukamoto points to audience antipathy as another possible threat. "Ninety-seven percent of the audience may not want to bother with interactivity," he says. And journalists themselves may be in for a rude awakening when they have to face audiences communicating with them via interactive media and demanding to take part in the journalistic process. "A new challenge is whether journalists can handle an active audience who could also be regarded as a reporter or editor," he says.

But whatever the form of journalism in Japan's new media, the need for journalists will only increase. "The journalist's role will never change," says Kyodo News editor Takezumi Ban. "Every society needs journalists, as their mission is to check up on power, politics, and the economy for the people."

Note: The function "email this page" is currently not supported for this page.