Investigation of problems with English site
Results of in-house investigation into WaiWai column
The Mainichi Newspapers has been conducting an in-house investigation into the problem of inappropriate articles being carried in the WaiWai section of the Mainichi Daily News website. The following are the results of this investigation, the analysis of the results conducted by a special task force, and comments from members of the Open Newspaper Committee of outside experts.
Breakdown in internal checks - left the foreign staff writer to do as he liked
The WaiWai column began in the print edition of the Mainichi Daily News (MDN) in October 1989. The aim of the column was to introduce not only hard news about Japan but also "softer" articles, quoting stories that appeared in domestic weekly and monthly magazines that presented interesting aspects of Japanese society and social behavior.
As part of the print edition of the MDN, the WaiWai column was established and was carried every Sunday over a full page and included six articles. The articles were written by MDN staff writers and three to five other English-speaking contributors. The choice of magazine from which to quote was made by these writers. One foreign writer who contributed articles recalls that the column was quite popular among foreign correspondents for giving a candid depiction of modern Japan.
The staff writer in charge of the column who last month was issued three months' disciplinary leave began working in the MDN Editorial Department in October 1996, after which he joined the team of WaiWai writers.
The publication of the print edition of the MDN was suspended at the end of March 2001, when Mainichi Newspapers Managing Director Yoshiyuki Watanabe was serving as general manager of the Multimedia Division (now the Digital Media Division). From the following month, the content of the newspaper was made available only on the MDN website. The WaiWai column was maintained in keeping with the editorial policy of the then managing editor (now deceased) of preserving the print content even following the shift to the Web.
At the time the print edition was suspended, the MDN had a staff of 15 foreign and three Japanese staff writers. Following the shift online, the staff was downsized to five foreign and three Japanese staff writers, with the Japanese staff subsequently being reduced to two. The task of writing articles for the WaiWai column essentially fell into the hands of just one editor.
The column editor generally wrote one WaiWai story of around 600 words a day while also translating other news stories for the MDN Web site. He was also given responsibility for choosing the source magazines. Later, an outside writer who had contributed to the column during its print incarnation joined the WaiWai staff, contributing one article per week while the editor wrote seven a week. It was during this period that many inappropriate articles about Japan's sexual behavior mores were carried online.
The column editor is bilingual. His colleagues had high esteem for his translation skills, demonstrated by the fact that he handled a full range of both hard and soft news. In April 2005, he was named MDN chief editor, working under the newspaper's managing editor. While the post of "chief editor" was not an official one in the corporate hierarchy, he effectively supervised all operations of the MDN. His business card identified him as being the "MDN Chief Editor."
Director and Digital Media Division Executive Supervisor Atsushi Hasegawa, who at the time was general manager of the Digital Media Division, comments that the title was conferred to offer an incentive to the foreign staff. "He was very outgoing and highly motivated, and he did the best work of anyone in the office." At the same time, there were some who voiced concern about the editor's predilection for sexual topics.
Attracting greater interest in the MDN was always on the mind of the column editor. He says that he came to Japan because of the poor job situation back home, noting that he had a fear of losing his job and that he did not want to give anyone an excuse to shut the MDN down. There was a positive viewer reaction when sexual topics were taken up, he adds, and this was why such stories continued to be selected.
Readers of the print edition of the MDN were residents of Japan and were relatively familiar with the kind of magazines that served as sources for the WaiWai stories and the position that the Mainichi Shimbun enjoyed in the country. But when the MDN shifted to the Web, 60 to 70 percent of those accessing the site lived overseas, notably in North America. Despite the change in readership, no special effort was made to revise the writing style.
The column editor assumed that different standards for accuracy applied to news stories and those carried in the WaiWai column. For this reason, both the print and web versions carried the following disclaimer: "WaiWai stories are transcriptions of articles that originally appeared in Japanese language publications. The Mainichi Daily News cannot be held responsible for the content of the original articles, nor does it guarantee their accuracy. Views expressed in the WaiWai column are not necessarily those held by the Mainichi Daily News or the Mainichi Newspapers Co." He did concede this might have been inadequate, though, considering that web readers did not necessarily differentiate between news articles translated from the Mainichi Shimbun and the stories in the WaiWai column.
Moreover, his knowledge and understanding of copyright laws were insufficient. When he first began writing WaiWai stories, he was told by a senior native English-speaking colleague that quoting from Japanese magazine articles was acceptable inasmuch as it was not straight translation but augmented with commentary and explanations. He took this advice at face value without further inquiry and continued to produce large volumes of magazine article translations. There were cases where personal interpretations that were not in the original article crept into the WaiWai story as a means of attracting reader attention.
Pursuit of WaiWai popularity drove column to extremes
From the days of the printed version of the MDN, the WaiWai column sometimes carried sex-related topics. In those days, the native English-speaking editor in charge of the column sometimes pointed out that language used in the column should be moderated. A writer of the WaiWai column recalls, "The editor in charge had a balanced perspective, and I couldn't write too much foolish stuff. Many articles of mine were turned down."
In the case of the Japanese version of the Mainichi Shimbun, all articles written by individual reporters are checked by desk editors, who confirm the facts and expressions in the articles by questioning reporters in detail about their articles. The articles will then be passed on to the page editing process. The articles then undergo repeated checks -- in the newsroom to determine positioning and headlines, in the proofreading section and by that day's senior editor -- until they are finally carried in the newspaper.
However, there was no such scrupulous checking with the WaiWai column. No one other than the writer of the column checked the translated articles against the original magazine articles, and most of the editing process was completed by the foreign staff.
After the MDN went exclusively online, the circumstances changed again. The writer of the WaiWai column remembers: "Because WaiWai was a popular column, we decided to increase the number of articles in the column from six to eight a week, making it a daily column." However, the staff could not keep up with the increasing workload, and the editor in charge of checking the WaiWai column was obliged to concentrate on editing general news.
The Japanese editorial staff mainly checked the straight news, and as a result the articles in the WaiWai column were carried on the Web as they were, without being checked by an editor in charge. The articles were only checked by foreign staff called "revisers," who mended the grammar and flow of the English sentences.
One of the foreign staff members at the MDN had warned about the content of the WaiWai column on several occasions, but the writer of the column recalls: "I rebuffed the claims when my articles were criticized. After I became the chief editor of the MDN, there may've been an atmosphere where other staff members found it hard to turn down (my articles)."
What kind of roles did the successive Japanese managing editors of the MDN play? The managing editors customarily doubled as chief editor of MDN's sister paper, the Mainichi Weekly, and left most of the affairs regarding the MDN to staff members.
A former managing editor, who assumed the post in October 2002, said, "I read the WaiWai articles from time to time after they moved to the Web, but not all of them. There were some extreme expressions, but in general, the column picked up stories that foreign readers interested in Japan would want to read."
An editorial staff member from those days recalls, "The managing editor was intent on the reform of the Mainichi Weekly and didn't involve himself in the MDN very much."
The next managing editor (April 2005-March 2006), who is now retired, doubled as Deputy General Manger of the Digital Media Division, to which the MDN and the Mainichi Weekly belong. In effect, he was mainly focused on his task as Deputy General Manager of the Digital Media Division and was rarely in the editing room of the MDN.
"I read some of the WaiWai articles and was aware of the content," the former managing editor said. He now regrets that he "could not see to it properly and left everything up to the writer in charge." Regarding the fact that the articles were posted on the Web without being checked by an editor in charge, he said, "I was uncomfortable about it, but I failed to set up a checking system."
A foreign staff member at the MDN points out: "The WaiWai column used many slang expressions, and I wonder if the successive Japanese managing editors really understood the content."
External warnings were ignored
"I checked the Web site from time to time, but the staff writer was in effect given a free hand. I should have kept an eye on his choice of articles." So reflects Hiroshi Takahashi, managing editor of the Mainichi Daily News since April 2006 (now temporarily stripped of his title).
Before assuming his post as managing editor, Takahashi asked a former MDN staff writer about the section. She said: "The content of the WaiWai column needs to be reviewed. It would be better to incorporate a greater awareness of social issues."
Lack of female perspective
Said the former female staff writer: "An American I once interviewed told me, 'I just saw this terrible article. Is the Mainichi Newspapers involved in this?' I thought it was a very serious matter that could compromise the credibility of the paper."
After assuming his post, Takahashi perused the WaiWai column and found it vulgar and overly focused on sex. He soon spoke to the staff writer in charge and listed up some of the magazines with extremely ribald content and gave him a strong verbal warning against using smutty articles. He also admonished the writer two or three times to ease up on the sex-related articles, but did not check the Web site to see if it had improved.
In a final analysis, warning signs from within the section were not met with any seriousness and did not lead to any changes.
Critical opinions about the problems of WaiWai also came from outside.
Last October, a Japanese woman living in the United States and working at a university there sent an e-mail message to the Digital Media Division, criticizing the content of WaiWai. She said that one of the articles, in particular, should not have been posted, even with the disclaimer that the MDN could not vouch for its accuracy. The reasons she gave were: the story could not logically have been true, and it was misleading to people who have little understanding of Japanese culture.
The staff writer in question also saw this e-mail, but made no specific response. "I wanted to reply, but it needed some consideration. I was bogged down by work and just couldn't get around to it," he explains.
In March, an e-mail in Japanese was sent from a person living in Japan, indicating similar doubts about the propriety of the content of WaiWai, but this too went unheeded.
The content of these two e-mail messages were relayed by e-mail not only to staff writers, but to other members of the Digital Media Division, including those in supervisory positions such as the General Manager, the Deputy General Manager and the managing editor.
Both Atsushi Hasegawa, Director and Digital Media Division Executive Supervisor, and Takahashi say they did not notice the e-mail message at all. Takahashi admits, "That was my biggest mistake. I regret very much that I did not respond properly to those messages."
Digital Media Division General Manager Akihiko Isono (presently stripped of this position), then Deputy General Manager of the same division, says "I checked my computer and found that I had opened the e-mail received in March. The importance of that negative piece of information seems to have slipped my notice. You have no idea how sorry I am for that mistake."
Source: The Mainichi Newspapers Co., Ltd.