Big changes in Japanese crime reporting, thanks to lay judge system

Japan’s new lay judge system will begin in July. Following the contentious national debate that occurred when people suddenly realized that a decision taken 10 years ago was coming to fruition, people have apparently resigned themselves to the inevitability. The next step has been the process of mental and physical preparation for what lies ahead. Citizens worry over the moral implications of deciding a person’s fate, lawyers and opposition lawmakers jockey for last-minute changes to the details, and the government is busying itself with the ongoing and enormous propaganda effort and the administrative grunt-work of selecting the lay judges and setting up deliberation rooms.

im20090327imc3r001_2703200913The news media, for its part, has collectively agreed to a rigorous reform of its crime reporting policy, a major change the likes of which have not been seen since the late 1980s, when the media started appending the title “suspect” (容疑者) to accused defendants’ names to emphasize the presumption of innocence.

Cyzo Magazine reports that starting last year, the major news organizations have almost all established new guidelines for crime reporting. While there are slight differences, and it is unclear whether TV news orgs will follow suit, they broadly follow the pattern of the Asahi Shimbun’s new policy:

  1. Clearly state sources of information – Previous practice tended toward lines like “according to the investigation…” which never bothered to cite the actual information source and essentially accepted whatever the police told them as the truth. Out of concern this could bias lay judges, Asahi will now cite specific police department names to make things clearer (the Yomiuri goes further and will note the title of the official at the police department).
  2. Emphasize that the news comes from an official announcement – Rather than saying “The Akasaka Police Department arrested so-and-so” the Asahi will now emphasized that the department announced that it made an arrest.
  3. Note whether the suspect admits to or rejects the charges.
  4. Avoid categorical statments, specifically  “[media institution] has learned” (XXXがわかった) – This is to avoid making it sound like the results of police investigations automatically become the truth.
  5. Include the accused’s side of the story – In addition to police sources, the Asahi and others will endeavor to include the views of the defendant’s lawyers as well.

My first reaction: This is all  stuff they should have been doing anyway! But I get the idea that without this impetus, the news organizations have found it impossible to report stories following such standards without risking losing access to the police press clubs. Of course, this story of softball “bad stenography” reporting in exchange for access is pretty much a constant in all areas of corporate journalism in Japan and elsewhere.

However, there is a somewhat unsettling background to these changes. First off, these “self-regulations” did not come about unilaterally of the media’s own volition. Being the first to report on a major arrest is a very easy way to sell papers, and the newspapers and wire services have long used the police beat as a place for young reporters to learn the ropes.

But out of concern for the impartiality of lay judges, the courts are considering UK-style regulations that would restrict reporting certain details of a criminal case, such as the details of police interrogations, until the beginning of court proceedings. The media have revamped their crime reporting policies in the hope of preserving this pillar of their business models. In the absence of constant updates on the progress of interrogations, I wonder how the TV stations and newspaper society sections would fill all the time that would surely open up?

One thought on “Big changes in Japanese crime reporting, thanks to lay judge system”

  1. Wow, no one has commented on this yet? Well, I think this is great. I can’t count the news articles/shows I’ve seen where it says “The suspect said that he committed the crime because of X according to a statement from the police.”

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