The net effect is news reportage that has been framed and filtered by and through the news values and ethical practices of one national and cultural press system and then reframed and filtered by and through the values and ethical practices of the correspondent’s press system. Additionally, there are times when the foreign correspondent is bypassed entirely. American news consumers increasingly receive the bulk of their international reporting from non-American reporters as major newspapers, news services and TV networks cut back on their own foreign bureaus and rely more on reports fed by other countries’ or news agencies and reporters. CNN has long used the get the foreign news from foreign reporters’ formula, and has surpassed the networks as the authoritative source of international news, as evidenced by such major events as the Gulf War and the Kobe earthquake.
But what is the underlying authority of these reports in terms of journalistic values and practices? How do these host-culture values and practices affect the often-competing values and practices of the correspondent? The need for context as a measure of meaning for news reports gains increased importance in international reporting as it must be expanded to include a journalistic context for the reports as well.
As a focus for integrating both the qualitative and quantitative data on journalism values and practices in Asia, the professional imperatives of truth-telling and independence will be examined across all three national press systems. Using truth-telling and independence, then, is not an imposition of Western values as the true, or universal, core of journalism. Each national press system reflects and recognizes similar values in name, in their journalistic quest. It is in the interpretation and application of truth-telling and independence where a richer context can be found for ferreting out meaning to international news reports.
The kisha kurabu, or press club, system of news coverage in Japanese journalism has been examined in numerous studies (Susumu, 1972; Lee, 1985; and Dennis, 1993). The clubs are highly structured organizations of journalists who cover the same ‘beat’ in government or business. There are separate clubs, for example, for the journalists who cover the prime minister, the foreign ministry, the Diet, the Imperial Household, or the Tokyo Stock Exchange. The clubs are organized and governed by the journalists themselves, but in most cases receive generous office space, including utilities, and telephone, fax and computer access at no, or only nominal, charge, from the government or business agency covered.
While Western styles of journalism would see truth emerging from full-disclosure reporting from highly competitive, independent journalists and news agencies trying to outfact each other and be first with exclusive stories, the kisha kurabu system effectively strips competitiveness from journalistic practice, reducing both independence of the journalists and the level of truthful disclosure in their reports. Membership in the specific press club is required to gain access to the individual or group covered, including attending press conferences and receiving background press briefings. A member of the foreign ministry press club, for instance, has no access to the Prime Minister’s Press club, even if the issue under discussion involves foreign policy.
A primary condition of membership in a press club is that no journalist will report any information that is not freely available to every other member.
Violation of that condition results in ejection from the club, with a resulting loss of any access to the principal players being covered. Under such self-imposed truth-telling restrictions on reporting, no journalist can report more facts than any other journalist, and certainly could report no ‘exclusive’ story based on individual initiative or enterprise. While in Western journalistic practice exclusives would result in a reward for the reporter and a point of pride for the newspaper, in Japanese practice it would produce banishment of the reporter and a serious loss of face for the newspaper to be reporting something different than the ‘competition.’ Japanese newspapers, in fact, are noted for their sameness, with nearly identical news. Truth as value is effectively measured by the limitation, rather than abundance, of facts. The competition among them comes more from the non-news features they contain, such as serialized novels. It should be noted that the kisha kurabu are a construction of the newspaper industry. Magazine reporters, considered second-class citizens in the Japanese journalism hierarchy, cannot join. Television reporters have only recently been allowed in because of the cross-ownership between the major Tokyo networks and newspapers.
The kisha kurabu structure produces, on its face, journalism solely lacking in independence as well. Although the clubs are organized and governed by the journalists, it is still the government and business agencies that make the decisions of what will be news on a particular day. The press club journalists then act essentially as the agents of the government or business agenda. Although the reports are factual or truthful, they often are not complete as they include only the selected truths or ‘spin’ that the newsmakers want to disseminate. The journalists themselves can also be responsible for adding their own spin as, for some, their careers rise and fall with the politicians they cover according to Abe’s investigation in 1995. The journalists who are current members of the Prime Minister’s Press club, for instance, used to be members of the Diet press club assigned to cover him as a legislator. As the politician’s star rises, so does the journalistic currency of the reporters covering him. As he moves into the prime minister’s office, the journalists move into the Prime Minister Press club. Those covering the former prime minister move out, often to reassignment at the bottom of the political pool.
It is common practice in Japanese political journalism to play ‘booster’ to the politician one is covering, and report on the selected angles that put the subject in the best light, further distancing the journalist from a Western concept of independence. It is important for the Western observer, including journalists, to note that Japanese political coverage is based on an advocacy, rather than objective, model.
The kisha kurabu structure emphasizes several underlying fundamental values of Japanese society: subjugation of the individual to the group; and presentation styles including news and information that promote harmony, rather than confrontation, criticism or dissent. Although a surface analysis would present dim prospects for a full disclosure and independent style of journalism, and to a fully informed society, journalistic values and practices are not completely limited by the kisha kurabu. As Japanese sociologist Takeshi Ishida points out, every omote, or formal surface area of a conflict, always has its ura, or background, informal area, where resolution is more likely to be found.
In addition to television and newspaper cross-ownership, each major newspaper in Tokyo also owns a subsidiary news magazine. The exclusion of the magazine reporters from the press clubs by their own newspaper owners is intentional. The magazine journalists are allowed a freer and often a more sensationalistic rein. Although they do not have access to the press conferences and background briefings, their newspaper counterparts will privately pass along not only the official agendas discussed, but also the rumors and innuendoes circulating in the government or business agency. The magazine will report on these more sensational and salacious stories that the newspaper would never deign to. But once reported in the magazine, the newspaper is free to run stories on the furor created by the magazine reporting, often repeating the bulk of the magazine stories. Of course, all of the newspapers will run the story at the same time, regardless of which newspaper’s subsidiary magazine ran the original story, because the press club journalists have agreed how and when to pursue the story so all will have it at the same time. The individual newspapers can print sensational stories without a loss of face and without violating any press club conditions.
The kisha kurabu have been historically closed to foreign journalists. Although some American news agencies have exerted great pressures to be admitted, most watch from the sidelines, preferring not to subscribe to the restrictive rules. Knowing the ritual flow of information, however, is essential to placing it in a meaningful context. As most Japanese reporting never directly names or quotes a source, American and other correspondents need to not only read between the lines, but also to follow the lines of the story’s origin, diffusion, and at times republication, to weigh its validity and reliability.
By Austin Thomas