The Press and Human Rights Committee, a third-party organ of The Asahi Shimbun, submitted to Asahi on Nov. 12 its views that were compiled related to reporting that appeared in the May 20, 2014, issue of the Asahi concerning the “Yoshida testimony” about the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant operated by Tokyo Electric Power Co.

The course of the study by the Press and Human Rights Committee and a summary of the report

* Course of the study

On Sept. 11, the news department of The Asahi Shimbun submitted a request to the committee to present its views concerning the contents of the reporting as well as the process behind the writing of the articles that appeared in the May 20 morning edition of the Asahi regarding the obtaining of the “Yoshida testimony.”

The committee decided on the same day to accept the request and notified the Asahi about its decision.

The committee immediately began its study. It carefully examined about 60 collected documents, including the Yoshida testimony, internal TEPCO documents as well as the related parts of the reports on the Fukushima nuclear accident compiled by commissions set up by the government, the Diet, TEPCO and the private sector. In addition, the committee directly questioned a total of 26 people, mainly in the news department, including staff writers who covered the case in question, the deputy editor in charge of the coverage and the head of the Investigative Reporting Section. The committee also received written reports from 37 individuals.

The committee used that material to examine the reporting under question. A total of nine committee sessions were held to deliberate the matter, and the following views were compiled based on the articles that appeared in the final edition published by the Tokyo head office.

The quotes from the Yoshida testimony are as they appeared in his testimony.

* Summary of the report

(1) Amid the situation of the central government not releasing the results of questioning of 772 individuals, beginning with Masao Yoshida, who was the head of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and died in 2013, the obtaining of the Yoshida testimony, the reporting of its contents and the calling for the central government to release the results can be highly appraised.

The coverage also raised an important issue by clarifying the problems that arose in the course of the human response to the severe accident at the nuclear plant.

However, as pointed out below, there were major errors in the contents of the reporting. Moreover, despite the spreading of criticism and doubts about the reporting in question, there was a lack of a sense of crisis that led to no appropriate and immediate response.

As a result, those developments led to the retraction of the articles, and that caused a loss of trust in the Asahi from those outside the company.

(2) For one thing, the headlines for the Page One article said “Withdrawal from nuclear plant by violating plant manager order” and “90 percent of workers at Fukushima No. 1 plant.” As indicated by those headlines, the core part of the article is that 90 percent of the workers withdrew in violation of the order by the plant manager. The lead paragraph had corresponding contents. However, no fact existed to make the evaluation that workers were “violating plant manager order.” No corroborating news gathering was done.

Secondly, there was no activity that is generally associated with the word “withdraw.” The headline that combined “withdrawal” with “violating order” strengthened the negative impression of the article.

Thirdly, there was a failure in the duty to provide readers with fair and accurate information. Comments by Yoshida in his testimony about “the game in which verbal information is passed on from one person to the next,” as well as his remark that “upon further thinking, I felt that going to 2F (Fukushima No. 2 nuclear power plant) was much more correct,” should have been included in the article, but were omitted.

Fourthly, there were problems with the article on Page 2. Under the headline “Violation of order left in the dark,” the article, in a story-telling style, described Yoshida’s judgment (the judgment that was a precondition for his instructions to ‘wait for the next instruction after temporarily retreating to a location near the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, regardless of whether it was inside or outside the plant grounds, where radiation levels were low’). It was nothing more than conjecture by the staff writer handling the article and was at odds with the contents of what Yoshida said in his testimony. The contents caused misunderstanding among readers.

Based on a comprehensive assessment of the above points, the committee made the judgment that it was appropriate for the Asahi to take the measure on Sept. 11 regarding the articles in question “to retract them because of mistaken expressions that give the impression that many workers fled from the Fukushima No. 1 plant while knowing about the order of the plant manager.”

(3) Next, there were several problems. One problem was that, with the excessive priority placed on protecting secrets from the news gathering process to the publication of the articles, only two staff writers had thoroughly read the Yoshida testimony until immediately before publication. There was no sharing of the contents even within the news department, and not even the individual with final responsibility for the news pages in question had read the relevant parts even on the day the articles were readied for publication.

Another problem was the failure to revise the articles from the previous day until the day the articles were prepared for publication even though doubts were raised about the headlines in addition to the lead paragraph and other parts from the Investigative Reporting Section, whose members wrote the articles, and other sections in the Tokyo head office as well as the Tokyo Editing Center, which writes the headlines for articles in the Tokyo head office, the Proofreading Center and the Osaka head office.

The other problem was the failure of the General Editor who bears final responsibility for the entire newspaper as well as the head of the section in charge of the articles to appropriately carry out their respective roles by placing excessive trust in the team of reporters in charge of the articles.

(4) Regarding the response of the Asahi after the reporting in question, some of the elements that can be pointed out are a disregard for criticism and doubts raised outside the company, including Internet media; excessive protests caused by a misplaced sense of confidence; a weak sense of crisis; and a noticeable delay in crisis management. There are points concerning the functioning of the news and public affairs departments that have to be reviewed.

(5) Fundamentally, there were deficiencies in using imagination to think about the perspective of readers as well as in the stance of seeking fair and accurate reporting. By using several of the perspectives presented in the full report of the committee’s views as a reference point, there is a need to study how the organization engaged in journalism should function.

Lastly, we would like to say a few words about the Investigative Reporting Section, whose members wrote the articles in question.

There is no doubt that a lack of humility and a misplaced sense of confidence existed in the team of reporters handling the reporting in question who had produced outstanding results in the past through its investigative reporting.

There was also an excessive level of trust in the reporting team, and that was one factor that stood in the way of the fostering of mutual criticism.

For those reasons, there are several points that should be placed under consideration, including the makeup of reporting teams within the Investigative Reporting Section and the format for accepting points raised both within and outside of that section.

Investigative reporting is an important pillar of newspaper journalism, and its importance will grow in the future.

Reform should be conducted so that it becomes possible to conduct investigative reporting in a more systematic way.

* * *

The following is the committee’s reference to the English translation of the articles in question:

The AJW, which is the English-language news site for The Asahi Shimbun, posted an English version of the May 20 Asahi article in the evening of May 20 under the headline “90% of TEPCO workers defied orders, fled Fukushima plant.”

The word “defied” was chosen based on the Japanese article with the headline “Withdrawal from nuclear plant by violating plant manager order.” The article was translated by an Asahi employee who has been involved in translating articles for many years and was approved by an AJW deputy editor.

Moreover, the May 20 article was picked up by major newspapers and news agencies abroad. The New York Times, for example, ran an article with the headline “Panicked Workers Fled Fukushima Plant in 2011 Despite Orders.”

Such articles led to the spread of information that TEPCO workers fled after ignoring the plant manager’s order.