Columns to Give Insight into the World

  • Faculty of Law
  • Considering Media Ethics and Laws with a Focus on the Leaking of “Off-the-Record” Comments
  • Professor OISHI Yasuhiko
  • Faculty of Law
  • Considering Media Ethics and Laws with a Focus on the Leaking of “Off-the-Record” Comments
  • Professor OISHI Yasuhiko

A series of “off-the-record” information leaks

“If anyone reported my (“off-the-record”) comments, their organization would be finished.”
“I will put radioactive substances on you.”
“Do you say, ‘I am going to rape you’ before you do it?”


Last year, these unofficial comments made by politicians and bureaucrats aroused criticism, and those who made the remarks were forced to resign from their positions. However, not all TV, newspaper and other news media reported the comments soon after they had been made. Some reported them although they knew the comments were made in “off-the-record” conversations and others just followed what peer companies did. The differences in their reporting attitude are reflections of the differences in their opinions about media ethics.



Since the occurrence of the Great East Japan Earthquake, the reliability of what we trusted vaguely in the past has been fundamentally broken, I feel. The issue of “off-the-record” information leaks was also caused against this backdrop. Are politicians, bureaucrats, others who have authority, and large companies truly reliable? How are they working? Japanese citizens are now monitoring them more closely than before and news media companies are asking themselves whether it is all right to continue their conventional way of making political and economic reports. In a series of anti-nuclear power generation demonstrations in Nagata-cho with a larger number of participants each time, some participants were holding anti-media placards and criticizing the news media.


In the first place, why do media companies collect “off-the-record” information? It is because they need to collect information on a medium- to long-term basis to identify and interpret facts, not just simply covering an incident when it happens or when it attracts the public’s attention. Journalists sometimes interview the parties of an incident on the premise that they will not make their comments in the interview public for some reason: the information given in the interview might need to be supported by facts or include some sensitive information such as that causing discrimination. Even if they cannot disclose the information gained through the “off-the-record” interview, knowing the background of the incident would greatly help them give deeper insights into the incident in their reports.


There have been pros and cons regarding the collection of “off-the-record” information by news media. Some say journalists can reveal the true facts and make deeper reports by collecting “off-the-record” information in their reporting activities, while others say journalists might be controlled by those who give them “off-the-record” information, which could lead to the manipulation of information. However, what is truly important about this issue is for whom journalists are working.

What is “sound reporting” by the news media?

As is provided for in Article 21.1 of the Constitution of Japan, “Freedom of assembly and association as well as speech, press, and all other forms of expression are guaranteed.” News media companies collect information and make reports on TV and in newspapers based on “freedom of expression.”


Basically, the Diet, elections and the Constitution of Japan are all based on the principle of majority rule. However, there are minorities in society, for whom human rights, including the freedom of expression are also guaranteed. It would therefore be sometimes essential for minorities’ opinions, which are not adopted under the rule of the majority, to be represented clearly. It could be a role to be played by news media to criticize political authorities, which are based on the rule of the majority, from the viewpoint of minorities. The media companies leaked the aforementioned “off-the-record” remarks, which are abominable for Okinawa and the disaster-afflicted areas, perhaps from this kind of viewpoint.


In July 2012, Nikkei, Inc. faced a scandal as a result of disclosing information sources about an incident (for the background and details of which, please refer to the following table). When the company initially reported the incident in its newspaper, the information sources were not clarified and only referred to as “those related” and the like. However, after the company got involved in a lawsuit regarding the incident, it clarified the sources at the court. This is an issue that should be treated on a different level from that on which “off-the-record” information leaking is dealt with, because it is clear deviancy from the basic principle to be followed by journalists. By disclosing the information sources, the media company revealed that it prioritizes protecting itself more than fulfilling its public responsibilities as a news media company. What the company did implies that it is not much aware of the importance of media ethics.


In Japan, how many journalists are working with a “professional” mindset backed by knowledge, expertise and ethics?  In Japan, unlike other countries, there are very few universities and other educational institutions where education is provided to develop “professional” journalists. Many people working in the media industry seem to believe that “professional” journalists are developed not at universities but by hands-on experience in the industry. You could acquire knowledge and expertise by working in the media industry, but how about ethics as professionals? Of course, I know there are journalists who are working ethically, asking themselves whether they are doing the right thing or not. However, it seems to me that many journalists in Japan are working just for their companies, putting aside their own beliefs and ways of life. Our society has dramatically changed since the occurrence of the Great East Japan Earthquake and amid these changes I strongly believe it is important for individual journalists to take actions based on their own ethics. Not only politicians and companies but also journalists need to change themselves.


Legislation entails the issue of ethics

People who criticize news media often insist on the need to regulate the companies by law. However, if laws, which are the rules set by political authorities, completely controlled news media, which are expected to play the role of monitoring and criticizing politicians, the freedom of expression might become meaningless. On the other hand, some regulations are indeed necessary, and a focus is placed on “ethics” as rules autonomously adopted in society.


Let us have a look at the medical industry. Medical practitioners need to make life and death decisions every day and are facing a range of new ethical issues, such as euthanasia, terminal care, and the rejection of blood transfusion. For these issues, you cannot and should not decide whether they are “good or bad” by law. People studying medical laws, which is one field of legal studies, are required to think about medical ethics and life ethics by taking a close look at actual medical facilities.


Next, let us think about education and the issue of bullying, which is becoming a serious problem. Even if the police intervene to solve the issue as public authorities and the educational board gives guidance, the issue of bullying will not be solved fundamentally. It is essential to focus on “How to educate teachers” and “How to help children build their interpersonal relationships.” Accordingly, people studying educational laws need to study pedagogy and think about the ethics of teachers.


Then what kind of ethical issues do news media need to handle? There are not absolute answers to questions, such as “Whether to disclose a portrait of the suspect?” and “Which to prioritize in a disaster afflicted site, news reporting or lifesaving?” Laws cannot regulate journalists for these issues. It is important that individual journalists learn from past incidents and take actions by thinking a lot from what they have learned and in an ethical manner. Ethics provide the basis for the freedom of expression.


As described above, when you think about specific laws, you need to face the reality of society and give due consideration to ethics, which are social rules. There are no absolute answers to individual ethical issues, which, however, does not mean that you do not need to search for answers. In every corner of society, professionals are required to think about and implement their work ethics and repeat trials and errors to give a driving force to maintain a sound society with the freedom of expression.

Thinking about media ethics to learn about self-expression and professionalism

Media ethics, which I mentioned above, are not related only to journalists but also to users of SNSs, such as twitter and Facebook.


You write something for “10 to 20 of your friends” through your blog and SNSs, which are, however, connected to “public” sites which anyone in the world can access. Everyone has two sides: One to be shown to the public, including your colleagues and schoolmates and another side to be shown only to your families and close friends. You sometimes tell a “secret” heard from someone else to your friends and say what you really think too frankly at a drinking party. Don’t you show your “private side” to the public without intention by writing about yourself and your friends in your blog or SNS sites? I hear some who did this have destroyed interpersonal relationships or have unofficial employment offers cancelled. These blog- and SNS-related problems are caused by people’s unawareness of the meaning and risk of posting information through public media. I think many of those who suffer these problems are not interested in general news and do know what it means to be in a “public” mode, although some would object to this opinion.



In the present age, anyone can dispatch information, and media ethics are therefore important as the basic principle to be followed by all who express themselves via public media, not limited to journalists. Some insist that “media ethics” and “online network ethics” are different, and in fact they should essentially be different. However, based on the idea that lessons learned from past experience provide the core of ethics, I think many people, rather than only candidates for journalists, need to learn about media ethics.  


Media ethics can also be said to be a commitment to professionalism. As already said, you need not only knowledge and expertise but also ethics to be professionals, but in Japan not enough importance is attributed to ethics, I am afraid. However, you do not want doctors, teachers and lawyers who have great knowledge and expertise but have no sense of ethics, do you? There should be ethics for all jobs, not limited to these technical jobs. In this age of dramatic changes, what is truly needed in society is people who work, repeating trial and error with pride as professionals and social systems that support these people.


I discussed media laws and ethics with a focus on “off-the-record” information leaking. Studying laws does not mean to memorize the provisions and court precedents. Laws do not exist apart from society, and in order to have a true understanding of laws, you need to face realities in society, which will make you recognize that laws are inseparable from ethics and that the world of laws is dynamic and humane. I am committed to communicating these to students through my lectures on media laws and ethics.


(This column is as of 2012.)

Study this theme at Aoyama Gakuin University

Faculty of Law

  • Faculty of Law
  • Professor OISHI Yasuhiko
  • Affiliation : Department of Law, Faculty of Law, Aoyama Gakuin University
  • Faculty of Law
  • Professor OISHI Yasuhiko
  • Affiliation : Department of Law, Faculty of Law, Aoyama Gakuin University

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