Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the state of Japanese journalism in light of the death of Kenji Goto. One aspect of the story that hasn’t been thoroughly discussed is the nature of freelance reporting in high risk areas. When the Foreign Ministry confiscated Yuichi Sugimoto’s passport to prevent him from going to Syria and doing his job, it received more critical coverage overseas than in Japan, which could be interpreted as evidence of the very problem we are talking about, that Japanese news organizations don’t take themselves seriously enough in the first place. As it stands, with the exception of Asahi Shimbun, major Japanese news outlets depend a great deal on freelancers and stringers since they usually don’t have correspondents in foreign countries, much less in war zones. If the journalist happens to live in the country from where he or she is reporting, it’s less of a problem, but most war correspondents don’t, so they have to handle their travel and other expenses themselves. According to a discussion I saw recently on DemocraTV, the normal procedure is for a news organization to give a war correspondent a fixed amount of money and the reporter has to make do with it. The amount will be determined by how long the reporter plans to be in country and how many reports the organization expects, but since he isn’t an employee of the company they don’t have to pay expenses or, more to the point, benefits. Even NHK, which has a relatively large news budget, doesn’t keep that many correspondents overseas, and if they have anybody covering conflict zones, they usually do so remotely. Of course, American and European news outlets also use freelancers and stringers, but they do send their own people into the thick of battle, as evidenced by the Brian Williams faux pas. The point is that while Sugimoto despaired of losing his livelihood when the government took away his passport, it’s a precarious livelihood at best. No one becomes a war correspondent to become rich. Goto’s reputation was that of a man who deeply cared about the people he covered, but there’s also a romantic, hard-boiled image that appeals to certain types of people and which draws them to this kind of work.
So it was a little disconcerting when Yoichi Watanabe, at one time the most famous war photojournalist in Japan, mentioned that he agreed that reporters should stay away from conflict zones in the Middle East right now. It should be noted that Watanabe’s fame has more to do with his “image” as a war reporter than with the actual reporting. Several years ago he was one of the most in-demand talento on network variety shows, mainly for his eccentric speech patterns, but he did talk about his experiences in places like Rwanda, Kosovo, Iraq, and Darfur. Despite Watanabe’s higher profile, it didn’t spark greater interest in what war correspondents are doing overseas. Once his moment in the variety show sun passed, he presumably went back to his old routine, which is going to conflict zones and filing reports that few people see or remember. Though it’s perfectly understanable that these reporters will avoid certain areas for fear they will end up as Goto did, making public pronouncements about their fellow freelancers would seem to go against their own interests, but in the end the public doesn’t care very much, and probably won’t until Japan has more of a presence in the area. One thing’s for sure, if Japan does start sending troops overseas for whatever reason, these reporters will have more work than they’ll know what to do with.