The Forgotten Basics

Setsuko Kamiya 神谷説子

When the Asahi Shimbun revealed in May that it had obtained transcripts of confidential interviews that the government had conducted with the former Fukushima Daiichi power plant chief Masao Yoshida, it was eye-catching not just because of the nature of the scoop, but because it was probably the first time that a domestic newspaper gave a short preview online about what it was running on their front page the next day. It also encouraged readers to visit their website for a special presentation.

And on the following day, Asahi reported that amid the March 2011 meltdown crisis, some 650 plant workers at the stricken power plant had defied Yoshida’s orders and fled without his permission to the unharmed Fukushima Daini plant, about 10 kilometers away. The daily allocated several pages to introduce and analyze Yoshida’s account. But its online presentation titled “Yoshida Testimony” was even more phenomenal, as it effectively used text, audio and photographs to detail what happened during the early stages of the crisis, based on Yoshida’s testimony.

It was a cutting-edge example of digital-age storytelling. Obviously, a good amount of planning and preparation was done, an indication that Asahi was confident that it was the only one who had this scoop and its staff had enough time to think hard about how to make the best of what they had. It looked as if Asahi had set a precedent of multimedia presentation.

I was recalling this new form of online journalism in September while listening to researchers from the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism discuss their findings from a cross-national online survey of digital news consumption. They warned Japanese newspapers, who still have higher circulation than their foreign counterparts, to move faster towards digital reporting and develop a strong online presence before it’s too late because there is no doubt that more people are consuming news on their computers and smart phones. I thought the “Yoshida Testimony” package was an example such an effort being made, and competitors must have felt the need to follow suit.

Ironically, though, as this discussion took place at Waseda University, Asahi Shimbun president Tadakazu Kimura held a press conference elsewhere in Tokyo and apologized for the newspaper making serious errors in their coverage of Yoshida’s testimony and retracted the report. The paper said the accurate version of the story was that Yoshida’s orders were not delivered properly and workers at the plant didn’t violate his orders and leave. Asahi admitted that they failed to confirm the facts with any plant worker.

Asahi’s initial scoop was already under attack after rival newspapers managed to obtain the same secret transcripts in August and reported that Yoshida, who died in 2013, testified he felt he was misunderstood rather than disobeyed, which contradicts Asahi’s version of the story. The different reports triggered by Asahi’s scoop eventually led the government to disclose the confidential interviews, which happened on the same day as Kimura’s press conference.

The Yoshida Testimony presentation is still accessible on Asahi’s website, but now it has an apology posted on the beginning of every related page.

The lesson seems clear. No matter how significant the scoop or how well you package your news in print or online, the value of such efforts plunges if you aren’t doing your reporting carefully and accurately. This will no doubt result in readers’ distrust of news organizations. This may sound like the basic principles of journalism, but we’re seeing too many of the basics being forgotten these days.

The error in the Yoshida testimony report is just one of several errors on contentious issues that Asahi has apologized for, including the delay in retracting its past erroneous reports on the comfort women issue. Attacks against the left-leaning daily had actually started in August after the paper reviewed and retracted reports on the comfort women issue from the 1980s and 1990s. And it also expressed regret for initially declining to run a column by popular journalist Akira Ikegami in which he criticized Asahi for its errors.

Asahi definitely has every reason to be criticized, and it needs to pay the price while reflecting on its mistakes. But the increasingly harsh attacks against the daily from politicians and right-wingers are becoming a threat not just towards the troubled newspaper but also against freedom of expression, and we need to be on alert.

*The Yoshida Testimony