EDITORIAL: NHK must not serve simply as the government’s mouthpiece
Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) is not the government’s public relations agency.
It cannot accomplish its mission as a news medium if it only reports the government’s announcements as its sole source.
This is the most basic of the basics of broadcast journalism. But NHK President Katsuto Momii still doesn’t understand the core mission of the organization he has been heading for two years and three months now if his recent remarks are any indication.
During an April 20 meeting of senior officials at NHK, Momii said the public broadcaster’s reporting on the recent destructive earthquakes in Kumamoto Prefecture and surrounding areas and the disaster’s possible effects on nuclear power generation should be “based on authorities’ official announcements,” according to informed sources.
NHK should focus on airing the official views announced by authorities, he reportedly said.
“If various assessments by experts were broadcast, it would only end up unnecessarily raising concerns among the public,” he was quoted as saying.
Momii expounded on his comments in response to a question about them during an April 26 session of the Lower House Committee of Internal Affairs and Communications.
Momii said the official announcements he was referring to were information released by the Meteorological Agency, the Nuclear Regulation Authority and Kyushu Electric Power Co.
As for Kyushu Electric Power’s Sendai nuclear plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, which is immediately south of Kumamoto Prefecture, Momii said he believed his organization should broadcast, without any additional reporting, announced information such as data provided by the radiation monitoring posts installed for issuing evacuation orders around the Sendai plant.
“If the NRA believes that the nuclear plant is safe or can remain in operation, we will just report it like that,” Momii told the committee.
During natural disasters, news media should, of course, strive to provide the public with accurate information as quickly and carefully as possible.
Announcements made by the central and local governments and various companies are, needless to say, important elements of news reports on such events.
At the same time, however, it is also a vital role of the news media to examine and fact-check such announcements and report them along with views based on expert knowledge and responses from citizens.
Momii’s instructions to senior NHK editors can be interpreted as a demand that only official announcements should be treated as facts.
What he said is tantamount to an order that NHK should stop performing its most basic function, which is examining things from various angles and reporting facts from multiple viewpoints.
Momii’s rationale for demanding that reports on these topics should be based on official views and announcements seems to be the necessity to reassure local residents.
If so, he is underestimating viewers’ ability to understand and assess news and information.
In a survey conducted last year by the NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, 85 percent of the respondents said they wanted to select the information that suits their needs on their own. Moreover, 61 percent of the people surveyed said they were confident about their ability to grasp reliable data from a sea of information.
The survey shows that many viewers want not only information officially provided by the government and companies, but also multifaceted reports on various topics so that they can make their own evaluations and judgments.
Momii has a history of making comments that raise serious questions about his editorial stance and journalistic ethics.
In his inaugural press conference in 2014, Momii said, “We cannot say left when the government says right.”
Last year, when he was asked whether NHK would deal with the “comfort women" issue in its reports on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, he replied, “The government’s policy is the key.”
Each time the NHK chief made remarks indicating loyal support for the government, he faced bitter criticism. But he is showing no signs of mending his ways.
The very credibility of NHK’s entire news reporting could be destroyed unless Momii stops damaging it.