Media Mix, April 24, 2021

Nagoya torch relay (Chunichi Shimbun)

Here’s this week’s Media Mix about coverage related to the Olympics that doesn’t sit right with the organizers, whether they be local officials or the IOC. I should say more about the Tokyo Shimbun article and video that covered the start of the torch relay in Fukushima. Though I use it in the column as an illustration of how IOC rules vis-a-vis the media sidestep local laws and practices in order to privilege those outlets that have entered into exclusive deals with the Olympics, to the newspaper’s reporters the restrictions in place could have real negative consequences. When locals in Fukushima complained about the “festival atmosphere” during the torch relay event, they weren’t just talking about the “bad taste” aspect, but also the health risks, which has been the main focus of Tokyo Shimbun’s coverage. On April 7, the paper ran another feature about the torch relay as it passed through Nagoya and Aichi Prefecture, reporting on how crowds of spectators were dangerously dense. In this case, a video would have made a particularly strong impact in line with the reporting, but since Tokyo Shimbun couldn’t keep any visuals on its home page for more than 72 hours per IOC rules they had to make do with verbal descriptions about crowds standing “shoulder-to-shoulder” along public roads “3-persons deep,” and how local security teams were having trouble maintaining social distancing guidelines. Needless to say, no TV stations covered the torch relay in this way since most of the networks have some kind of stake in the Olympics, and even if a station doesn’t have a sponsorship deal they still are hesitant to get on the wrong side of the organizers lest they get shut out of future coverage. 

But even if that weren’t the case, would TV stations cover the torch relay and other Olympics promotional events with a critical eye? When NHK broadcast a livestream of the torch relay as it passed through Nagano city on April 1, some viewers noticed that the sound was cut out for about 30 seconds after it was apparent that protesters in the background were chanting anti-Olympics slogans. A wave of indignation swept through social media, accusing NHK of shutting out dissident voices and distorting its news coverage. One explanation is that security stopped the demonstration due to the loud chanting, which goes against COVID-prevention protocols, but it’s obvious from the resulting footage that somebody muted the sound itself. Organizers responded by saying that the presentation of the video was NHK’s concern and the organizers had nothing to do with it. When Mainichi Shimbun, which, as pointed out in the column, has been the most conscientious of the sponsoring daily newspapers in its coverage of the Olympics in general (Asahi has, too, but mostly in its editorials), asked NHK why it cut out the sound, the publicity person referred to “various circumstances” without elaborating, though they didn’t deny that the sound had been altered. NHK, of course, will be one of the main broadcasters of the Games, but, given their history of avoiding certain controversies for the sake of decorum, it seems just as likely that NHK’s decision to cut the mic mid-protest was more reflexive than cautionary. 

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