What is the Open Newspaper Committee?
The Open Newspaper Committee of the Mainichi Newspapers Co., Ltd. is responsible for the following three tasks: 1) to express its views on the company's response to any complaints or opinions it receives with regard to human rights and announce them to readers; 2) to express opinions if it finds any problems involving the Mainichi's news coverage; and 3) to propose ways in which the company should improve its news coverage.
The committee is made up of four members: writer Kunio Yanagida, freelance journalist Akira Tamaki, Sophia University Professor Yasuhiko Tajima and non-fiction writer Michiko Yoshinaga.
Channel for unedited information
By Michiko Yoshinaga, Nonfiction Writer
The WaiWai column lent credibility to articles that Japanese readers would ordinarily take with a grain of salt. Foreign readers cannot tell whether or not the Japanese magazines that originally published the articles are reputable and can be taken at face value. There was a danger, therefore, that the column could invite great misunderstanding. It is frightening to think that the responsibility for such a column was left completely in the hands of an individual staff writer. A company that gives precedence to the number of web hits over consideration of what information should be conveyed cannot be properly called a newspaper.
Claims have been made that the column shed light on certain aspects of Japanese society. This claim is unsupportable, for rather than shedding light, it provided something close to misinformation. The articles resorted to generalizations about the behavior of "Japanese mothers" and "Japanese schoolgirls." A simple disclaimer that the information was based on magazine articles does not ensure immunity from responsibility. If it did, it would condone the simple discharging of unedited information.
There were two opportunities to review the work the staff writer was performing, first following his probationary period when he was hired on a fulltime basis as a contract employee, and second when he was named Mainichi Daily News (MDN) Chief Editor. How was his work evaluated that he was given a position of editorial responsibility? The columns and articles written by the staff writer should naturally have been checked. It is hard to believe that they continued to be posted on the Web without any checks for the accuracy of their content.
Questions also arise regarding the Mainichi Newspapers' response to this issue, as problems with the column have been pointed out on repeated occasions. Protests regarding the site were lodged in May, but nothing was done until June 21, almost a month later. That the company failed to perceive the gravity of the situation and respond as an organized corporate entity reveals a shocking lack of sensitivity. This is a truly damaging blow, for now all of Japan has become aware of the turn of events.
Incredulously, in announcing punitive measures for the in-house managers and staff members responsible, the company added that it "is determined to take legal action against ... clearly illegal acts that constitute defamation." Gaining the understanding of the public from such a position would be impossible, for what was called for at that point was an apology, not an assertion that it, too, was a victim.
The problems that the Mainichi Newspapers has pointed out with Web-based information sources and the efforts it has made to convey information in an accurate manner are at great odds with the reality of the WaiWai column. It is my hope that the MDN takes this fact to heart and adopts fundamental measures to reform its operations.
Failure to respond to readers' criticism
By Kunio Yanagida, Writer
As a person who has experience in analyzing various accidents and incidents of misconduct, I feel that this problem involved a typical pitfall. Serious problems occur when safety levels decline in the marginal regions of a system, even when its central part remains stable.
For example, a pollution accident at an agri-chemical factory in India developed into a major catastrophe because the incident was handled poorly by local workers, despite the fact that the company's headquarters in the United States was efficiently organized. An incident that occurs in a marginal region is not necessarily minor, but it can have grave consequences.
The Internet society initially became a marginal part of the world of printed media. The WaiWai problem indicates that even though the presence of the Internet has grown large, the dispatch of information in English on the Mainichi Daily News (MDN) Web site was treated as a marginal activity and was not carefully monitored. In view of its global influence, the appropriateness of information posted on the MDN site should have been checked.
Some printed media outlets today are disseminating sexual information with no restrictions. This era might be called the age of freedom of expression without morality. However, it is not acceptable to carry information simply because it is a column or likely to attract large attention. Moderation and social morality are required in selecting content. Newspapers must show morality with a resolute attitude. Speaking out without restraint or ethics is not a form of freedom of expression worthy of protection.
The biggest problem that should be noted is that the Mainichi Newspapers failed to properly respond to complaints from readers.
Nobody raised questions about the column even when readers pointed out its problems and their complaints were circulated among staff members. This was irresponsible, to say the least. It is necessary to scrutinize the slack attitude and state of mind of MDN staff members, none of whom responded with alertness to the warning signals.
I wonder why the staff writer in question was appointed as chief editor and why stories written by the chief editor were not checked. Perhaps there was a lenient attitude toward the English expressions because they were written by a native English speaker.
It is necessary to create a thorough checking system for the English Web site and other media outlets published by the Mainichi that are on par with the system functioning for the main newspaper.
In recent years, I have become a whistleblower regarding the negative side of the Internet. As this case shows, nobody can easily tell where pitfalls await us in an Internet society.
That online attacks over this WaiWai problem have developed into a type of riot on the Internet shows problems involving the dark side of the Internet society in which people can remain anonymous are becoming alarmingly dangerous, which terrifies me. News organizations should learn from this incident as to how they should relate to the Internet.
Negligence of editorial responsibilities
By Akira Tamaki, Freelance Journalist
These types of stories would have never appeared in the printed edition of a newspaper. I think that these stories were run because the Mainichi Daily News (MDN) is an online newspaper.
The Internet has a function of turning information into just another piece of information. On the Net, newspapers, weekly magazines and personal blogs are deprived of their individuality and arranged horizontally as simple information. The writer of the column in question was caught up in the atmosphere of the Internet and quoted magazine articles that were based on underground culture and were obscene. The writer then posted such articles on one of the media outlets of the Mainichi Newspapers, which is the publisher of a general newspaper. The staff writer in this case was processing information rather than writing stories.
The qualifications of the staff writer who did such a thing should be called into question. I don't think he is a properly trained journalist. I wonder if he has sufficient knowledge about the Japanese media. Some of the magazine articles he quoted were not properly researched. Proper newspaper reporters would never have been so unprofessional as to copy magazine articles and post them in a media outlet operated by a newspaper.
There are also problems with the in-house system, in which the problem had been overlooked since the column began to appear on the Internet. It is beyond my comprehension why it had been left entirely to the staff writer's discretion to write and check his own stories, even if he was the chief editor.
The most important function in a newspaper is the desk editor's function of instructing staff writers and checking their articles. The desk editor is in charge of what and where staff writers cover and how they cover these stories, and instructs them to gather further materials if necessary. I wonder why an editorial department that lacks this important function was left as it is over such a long period of time. The organization of the editorial department must be reviewed with these problems in mind.
Representatives from various divisions at each newspaper regularly gather and discuss how the day's pages will be made. This also functions as a checking system. Through their long experience, newspapers have built up a system in which individuals cooperate in an organized way instead of working in an isolated manner. This enables them to automatically check articles through an organized system. I want the Mainichi to make full use of such a system.
Problem reflects disregard of English-language site
By Yasuhiko Tajima, Sophia University Professor
There must be a shared understanding as a whole company on how the Mainichi Newspapers has positioned the Mainichi Daily News (MDN) and for what purpose the company is making the English site. This should be called into question once again.
In fact, at first I did not know what was going on. I was then surprised to learn that the Mainichi had continued to carry such a controversial column without checking the contents and that most of the people in the company were not even reading the column.
It is hardly thinkable that the Mainichi Newspapers was even aware of the significance of releasing articles on Japan in English. Surely the company must have been aware of the importance of internationalization and globalization, but if they had been aware of the importance of these issues even slightly, someone should have spoken out.
It is true that the reporter who wrote the column bears responsibility, but there lacked a minimal system that is inherently necessary for editing. I wonder if the delayed response was also triggered by a nonchalant attitude that the site was not part of the Japanese parent newspaper, as well as by the vague identity of the MDN itself.
This is not to say that the MDN should be abandoned. It might seem that abolishing the MDN is the safest way under such circumstances. However, the Mainichi should take a longer-term perspective, and the MDN's high-quality, core activities should be continued. For that purpose, the structure should be improved so the MDN can be reborn, and these problems should be addressed in order to get it right in the future.
Considering that 60 to 70 percent of readers access the MDN from overseas, it is all the more important to think about the role of journalism in the international community and about how the MDN should convey the way Japan is viewed from the standpoint of the Mainichi Shimbun. It is true that formal news and hard stories alone cannot convey the whole picture of Japan, so there should also be other types of stories as well.
If the Mainichi addresses these issues in a convincing manner, without taking a cosmetic response, and presents how it is going to implement a system in order to produce a truly good site, the response should satisfy readers and a solution to the problem should appear.
The Mainichi should reflect on this issue sincerely in order to recover the confidence of readers, and put its utmost efforts into finding a way to overcome and remedy the situation. I expect the company to take this issue as an opportunity to once again question these fundamental issues.
Source: The Mainichi Newspapers Co., Ltd.