OPINION: More curious and less biased: int'l journalism at its best

©Kyodo News

I have had the good fortune to win the 2021 Japan National Press Club Award. This award is one of the most prestigious prizes in the Japanese journalism community.

When I found my name posted on the JNPC website alongside those of past star laureates, such as Yoichi Funabashi, Hiroko Kuniya, Mikio Haruna and Yoshihisa Komori, I felt a sense of solemn humility and became determined to devote the rest of my life to journalism in Japan.

The reason for the award is "many years of leading and contributing to Japanese international journalism." Actually, for more than 30 years I have covered international events, wars and historical negotiations, interviewed Vladimir Putin several times, as well as George W. Bush and other global leaders. Moreover, I have written books about President Barack Obama and U.S. foreign policy.

Therefore, as an international journalist, I received the award with delight. However, at the same time, I could not prevent an old question from arising in my mind. That is, what does international journalism or international reporting mean, and how can we deepen it?

That question first came into my mind one night in the late 1980s. I was standing in front of the house of a senior police officer in Osaka. The officer was in charge of famous cold cases, so every night several reporters visited him to check whether there were any developments in those cases.

Police officers are more relaxed about talking with reporters at home. Therefore, we do "nighttime home assaults," which are a very common style of Japanese journalism.

On that day, he was late and one of my reporter colleagues joined me in waiting for the officer. We naturally started to chat. The reporter, a couple of years senior to me and famous for his blunt comments, asked what kind of journalist I wanted to become.

"International reporter," I answered, based on my simple childhood desire. Then he told me seriously "you should not go down that route."

He said Osaka city news reporters could get scoops because they are at the forefront of the news. "But international reporters are not. Mostly, they translate articles from foreign or American journalists into Japanese. They can't experience the excitement we feel in Osaka, which only a first-hand witness of historical events enjoys," he said.

City news coverage in Osaka was so exciting to me that the question, "Is international reporting more or less the translation of foreign reports, and if so, would it be worthwhile for me to pursue it?" stayed deep in my mind.

After I joined the Kyodo News international section, I found my Osaka colleague's perception of Japanese international reporting to be half true. Kyodo News, Japan's largest news media outlet for international reporting, had around 50 Japanese journalists stationed around the world in the late 1980s.

Obviously, Japanese reporters could not report every newsworthy development around the world without relying on local news articles. Translating them was necessary to provide information on the events.

Nevertheless, in covering the Tiananmen Square crackdown, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the sudden end of the Cold War, Japanese journalists wrote many original and excellent reports, and sometimes won scoops that had a global impact.

I have sought to follow their example, which was to grasp the overall picture of an event from local reports, analyze them myself, and seek scoops through interviews and on-site reporting.

Local reports are indispensable to foreign reporters. However, to deepen and enrich articles, you need your own unique perspective, and preferably new facts.

Now I have some answers to my old question, but it is tough to add new facts and fresh perspectives, something that has become more important now.

You can get news in Tokyo from international news sites, even live news coverage from CNN and BBC, for instance. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult for journalists to move globally.

Sending reporters to faraway countries is costly, and news in foreign countries does not arouse readers' immediate interest as long as the news has no strong connection with Japan.

Hence, the question lingers: why do we not stay safely in Japan and focus our resources on translation? My counterarguments follow.

First, such local or global media reports do not produce content for Japanese readers. If you write for your compatriots, your perspectives should reflect your readers' questions and interests. Articles produced by native journalists lack basic information that is already known to local citizens but not to foreigners including Japanese.

Second, foreign journalists with their own perspectives and interests can report so-called taboo issues in the countries where they are stationed. With overwhelming public support for traditional systems, local reporters tend to abandon attempts to cover those issues.

One example is the mainland Chinese media's disinclination to cover prodemocracy movements and human rights abuses in Hong Kong and other parts of China.

A couple of years ago, I asked a mainland journalist about the Chinese media's silence on those issues. She responded that her audience was so strongly opposed to the Hong Kong prodemocracy movement that such stories were not read. However, foreign media have different audiences who are interested in the Hong Kong demonstrators.

The mainstream media in Japan believe that the Liberal Democratic government enjoys strong public support and media criticism should not ignore this.

However, the foreign media are more vocal about the downsides of LDP policies such as the lack of gender equality, the culture of long working hours, and poor immigration policy.

Reports by foreign journalists on these issues are sometimes helpful for Japanese; this is another form of "gaiatsu," or foreign pressure.

I previously covered the rise of patriotic sentiment in the post-9/11 United Sates and wrote articles critical of U.S. policies toward the Muslim world.

I thought then that foreign journalists could write strong criticisms of the United States because I could be somewhat detached from American public sentiment.

In my considered opinion, foreign journalists have clearer and more objective perspectives on dramatic national developments than local journalists.

There are some examples of foreign journalists with clearer views producing good books about historic events.

I can say the best book about the United States is still "Democracy in America," written by French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century.

On the Russian Revolution, I favor "Ten Days that Shook the World" by American writer John Reed. "Red Star over China" by American journalist Edgar Snow is a good source of information on the early stages of the Chinese Revolution.

All three writers of those masterpieces were foreigners traveling or stationed in the respective countries. Reed and Snow were allowed to stay with the influential leaders as useful disseminators of propaganda. However, the writers took advantage of their privilege and recorded the events with pure curiosity and without local bias.

"Simple curiosity and less bias" is common virtue of successful international journalism. With hope for international journalism, I believe that the best pieces about contemporary China, the United States or other major developments are being written by foreign journalists.

(Hiroki Sugita is columnist of Kyodo News.)