COVID-19 continued to dominate media coverage in 2021. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

If 2020 was a year spent in limbo, 2021 was a time of reckoning.

Twenty-two months into the pandemic we’ve had plenty of opportunity to ponder what kind of future is in store for us, with the understanding that life will not be the same as it was before COVID-19. Although it hasn’t acted in a concerted manner, the media has had a lot to do with our reaching that conclusion. Isolated and stuck in a rut, each of us turns to our TV, computer and phone for answers and reassurances that they can’t deliver because there is no uniform, coherent message except that the virus isn’t going away soon. Breaking through the static was more difficult than it has ever been.

Media topic of the year 1: Japan conquers COVID-19

Well, maybe “conquer” is premature, but, as far as statistics go, Japan at the moment is ahead of the rest of the world in terms of its low infection numbers, high vaccination rates and, most significantly, the relative paucity of deaths and serious cases. At the beginning of the year, the Japanese media didn’t necessarily think things would get better. The gauge they’ve used — daily infections, focusing on Tokyo’s as the representative marker — did not offer much hope at the time, and the states of emergency these numbers brought about were stretching on indefinitely.

The press’ pessimism was based on the fact that vaccinations were already underway in the United States and Europe, while Japan seemed to have missed the boat at some point in the fall of 2020. By spring 2021, there was a palpable fear that new mutations would outrun Japan’s ability to get doses into people’s arms, but there were also signs of hope, mostly at the local level, where municipal governments were improvising and filling gaps in the central government’s rollout plan.

And despite reports that Japanese people were averse to vaccines, they lined up for jabs. Aided by the public’s ongoing willingness to wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines even after the numbers started to drop, it eventually became difficult for the media to sustain its doomy pronouncements. The authorities weren’t promoting much less publicizing the need for widespread testing (they never did) and the government’s decades-long push to cut health service spending didn’t stop because of the pandemic, but there was less death and misery. So why do we still feel so anxious?

Media topic of the year 2: Foreign residents

Japan has remained closed to the outside world since the spring of 2020, a situation that affects foreign nationals more than it does Japanese citizens, even though the restrictions for both long-term foreign residents and Japanese returning from overseas have been the same. The burden of strict quarantine and testing requirements fall heavier on foreign residents, for whom such measures mean they can’t easily visit family or, even worse, are separated from loved ones who were supposed to join them in Japan. It’s also kept out foreign students and workers who went to great cost and effort to come to Japan.

The vernacular press hasn’t covered this aspect of the pandemic as thoroughly as the English-language press and social media have, but they did pay closer attention to foreign nationals who were already here for whatever reason, as well as their problems. In that regard, the most illustrative mainstream media story of the year was that of Ratnayake Liyanage Wishma Sandamali, the Sri Lankan woman who came to Japan to study and was later detained for suspicion of overstaying and then placed in a facility where she fell ill and died without receiving medical care. The investigation into her death is ongoing, and while her case was not the first of its kind, the media never really noticed the circumstances surrounding detained foreign nationals until her story emerged. Even TV paid attention.

Media personality of the year: Taro Kono

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s once-and-future liberal hope has always been an enthusiastic self-promoter, whether he’s showing off his colloquial English for the foreign press or making bold assertions as a Cabinet minister or cracking bad jokes on Twitter. He was in the news a lot this year since at one point he was the government’s vaccine czar and then ran for Liberal Democratic Party president and thus for the prime minister’s job. But he lost, because Fumio Kishida was as far left as the LDP was willing to go. For what it’s worth, Kono’s progressive credentials have always been overstated. Anyone in the LDP who comes across as being their own man can be mistaken for a liberal, and though some pundits thought Kono’s new job at the party’s PR desk was a demotion following his failed leadership bid, it’s probably the ideal job for him.

Mako Komuro's marriage to a commoner allowed her to leave Japan's imperial family. | IMPERIAL HOUSEHOLD AGENCY OF JAPAN / VIA REUTERS
Mako Komuro’s marriage to a commoner allowed her to leave Japan’s imperial family. | IMPERIAL HOUSEHOLD AGENCY OF JAPAN / VIA REUTERS

Media victim of the year: Mako Komuro

The former princess’s reverse Cinderella story was still a fairy tale, and while the real target of the media’s accusatory, fact-bending coverage of her four-year engagement to college sweetheart Kei Komuro was her husband, she absorbed the full force of its reckless enmity. That her fiance was a commoner provided her with the opportunity to escape the imperial family, but his decision to pursue a law career in the U.S. also allowed her to leave Japan altogether, thus offering an ending to her story that was dramatically satisfying since it was a perfect illustration of how Japan’s emperor system is more than anachronistic. It’s cruel, though I wonder if it was the media’s intention to be the vehicle of that cruelty.

Most valuable player: Saeko Masumi

Human rights lawyer Saeko Masumi joined the web channel “Democracy Times” in 2017 when some prominent journalists launched the nonprofit enterprise to broadcast discussions of news topics with more depth than what is normally presented in the mainstream media. The journalists talk at length about their reporting and the real meaning behind the stories they cover. In TV terms, Masumi is the requisite “kikite” (listener), that person you see on talk shows, almost always a woman, who nods and reacts to those doing the talking. But Masumi is not merely a sounding board. Steeped in a thorough understanding of the topics discussed, she gives the conversations background and relevance based on her advocacy work as someone whose probing intelligence compels her to seek the truth at any cost.

See for addenda to Media Mix contributions.

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