Why journalism is important
Posted by ampontan on Saturday, September 26, 2009
Do you love it?
Do you hate it?
There it is
The way you made it.
- Frank Zappa
READER and frequent commenter Aceface, who is employed by a major Japanese media outlet, has been keeping abreast of the reaction to the Justin McCurry article in The Guardian about Japanese “rent-a-friends” that has generated some discussion here recently.
He’s been sifting through the comment section to see what The Guardian’s readers have to say about that article.
Now I understand that the folks who post in The Guardian’s comment sections are the subject of considerable mockery and disdain in Britain. I’m also well aware that the same sort of people hang out and write in those sections of American newspapers, where the same sort of bilge is never far from the surface.
But those comments give us an idea of how the consumers of news view Japan. Here are three that Aceface dug up:
“I find it rather sad actually. That the Japanese, in all their “efficiency,” have not managed to be able to find a balance between wealth and “society” is lamentable. That people, in a related matter, are willing to become spouses of robots, rather than seeking to connect with other humans, seems to me to be pretty scary.”
“Because of the Japanese sense of superiority and homogeneity, I imagine, they’d rather associate with a fake friend that actually befriend the Korean or other non-Japanese-born person next door. Truly sad and scary.”
“The (Western) First World ranks above the rest of the world, not just because of its wealth, but in its ability to create a society made up of social human beings of all stripes. That Japan has chosen to deviate completely from this trajectory is to its detriment, and I believe that ultimately, it will be proven to have erred in placing so much faith in machines rather than encouraging real human contact.”
Why do these people “know” that Japanese marry robots, have a sense of superiority and homogeneity, would rather associate with fake friends than Koreans, or have chosen to deviate from the civilization that is the Crown of Creation?
Because they read it in the newspaper.
Here’s another commenter on the blog of Daniel Drezner writing about a slapdash post stemming from a short-circuited conclusion–which in turn was inspired by a hideously deformed article in The New York Times about the Japanese government’s policy toward Brazilian guest workers.
“The xenophobic mindset of Japan, is something akin to the Wahabi equivalent in Islam – if it goes so far as to exclude ethnic Japanese, from Brazil!”
He knows because he read it on a blog written by a university professor who read it in a publication that likes to pretend it’s The Paper of Record. (For more detail on that particular story, here’s my post on the subject.)
Tyler Cowan is an economist at George Mason University who has a blog called Marginal Revolution. During a trip to Japan, he was surprised to see so many vending machines and wondered why in this post.
I was astonished at the content of some of the comments on a blog written for educated and presumably well-informed people. Here is my comment in full. It explains why I thought there were more vending machines here than elsewhere and responds to what the other commenters said.
Some points to consider, offered by a resident of Japan for 24 years:
1. Most vending machines in Japan are owned outright by the commercial establishment where they’re located. That means they are an extension of the business enterprise itself. That includes Shinto shrines and medical clinics.
2. Beware of the trap of thinking that Tokyo=Japan. Most people in Japan don’t live in Tokyo and they DO use (and depend on) their cars. Toyota didn’t get where it is today by selling all its product overseas.
3. Beware of the trap of thinking that American dietary habits=the global gold standard. Most refrigerators sold in Japan today are larger than the ones I grew up with in the United States. Yet very few Japanese will buy immense bottles of soft drink or buckets of ice cream and stick them in the refrigerator/freezer. They tend to eat smaller quantities at one sitting.
My Japanese wife was initially impressed by her first visit to an American supermarket, but wound up close to appalled before she walked out the door. It is difficult for Americans to realize how gluttonous it all seems to someone not used to that lifestyle.
Of course, Japanese men will buy cases of beer–in larger bottles–but instead of putting them into the refrigerator all at once, or taking up space in the house, place the bottles on the porch or outside the kitchen door, secure in the knowledge that the beer is unlikely to be stolen.
And while I’m at it…
“Use a vending machine and you get to avoid human interaction. Prejudice?”
No, just completely unaware of daily social interaction in Japan.
“They sell cars door-to-door in Japan…”
That’s not how most people buy them, however.
“…could it have anything to do with the fact that it’s been easier to carry coins in Japan since they’re hollow in the middle?”
Only two coins have holes in the middle, the holes don’t make them easier to carry, and they are not the coins most likely to be used in vending machines.
“Most urban Japaneses rarely make a meal at home…”
I would love to see the statistics on that one. Particularly for families.
“The “high ratio of small stores” is a byproduct of law: super-malls and big stores like Carrefour/Walmart aren’t allowed to be built there…”
Twenty years out of date.
“Vending machines in Japan must…carry products that are not easily accessible.”
The overwhelming majority of Japanese vending machines sell either beverages, cigarettes, or less frequently, ice cream.
“I have heard from expats that the painful level of politeness demanded of even small human transactions adds to the appeal of automation.”
Bum steer. If an expat told you that, I can almost guarantee that their degree of language fluency is negligible.
“Vending machines are, of course, always open.”
Not for beer or ciggies after 11:00 p.m. where I live.
“Japan has few immigrants and I don’t think their teenagers work.”
The jobs that high school students in the US do are performed by college students in Japan. I teach two college classes at a national university, and 95% of my students have part-time jobs working in shops and restaurants.
I don’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings, but you know what Keynes said about truth-telling.
Still, the lack of accurate information about Japan–in the information age, no less–is sobering.
Why is so much of the educated public’s knowledge of Japan so incorrect?
Because they got it from the newspaper.
I urge those of you with the courage to wade through the cloaca of public opinion to read this previous post on what sort of comments the moderators at the BBC website think are acceptable about Japan. Keep in mind that the network warns posters in advance about defamatory comments or comments about racial hatred. The BBC didn’t think its rules applied to people calling for the wholesale murder of Japanese.
How did those posters from their opinion of Japan?
They based it on what they read in the newspaper or saw on the BBC.
The late author Michael Crichton delivered a speech in 2002 in which he addressed the issue of media credibility. He observed:
“(T)here are some well-studied media effects which suggest that a simple appearance in media provides credibility. There was a well-known series of excellent studies by Stanford researchers that have shown, for example, that children take media literally. If you show them a bag of popcorn on a television set and ask them what will happen if you turn the TV upside down, the children say the popcorn will fall out of the bag. This effect would be amusing if it were confined to children. The studies show that no one is exempt. All human beings are subject to this media effect, including those of us who think we are self-aware and hip and knowledgeable.”
Here is his conclusion. I’ve emphasized the last part:
Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect…
Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.
That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I’d point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.
But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn’t.
Responsible citizenship, however one chooses to define that, depends on a fully informed citizenry. People form their conception of issues based on what they read and watch in the print and broadcast media. That is particularly the case for international issues and circumstances in a country they are unlikely to visit or ever know much about.
While journalists are not responsible for the reactions that take place once the chemicals are placed in the beaker, they are responsible for the content of the inserted chemicals that cause those reactions and their deliberate placement of the beaker over a Bunsen burner to accelerate the reactions.
Responding to my post about his Guardian article, McCurry wrote:
I now feel totally vindicated in my choice of profession.
I’d feel totally ashamed if the fruits of my labor were partially responsible for creating this image of Japan overseas. I’d think the time had arrived for hansei, or serious self-reflection on my errors.
Instead of contributing to the world’s enlightenment about things Japanese, journalists as a class bear the primary responsibility for creating the environment in which the ignorance shown above breeds. But that’s not exactly what they would have us believe they’re doing, is it?
If what you know about Japan is derived from the English-language mass media, then everything you know about Japan is wrong.
And we all know why.